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Executive summary

There has been little research conducted on the experiences of migrant sex workers both internationally and within Australia. This is despite widespread media and other reports highlighting the perception of migrant sex workers as particularly vulnerable to exploitation and human trafficking. This report focuses on consolidating current knowledge of migrants in the Australian sex industry, based on a review of the existing literature and an analysis of responses to a survey conducted among migrant and non-migrant sex workers in a range of states and territories in Australia in 2010. This analysis explores the demographic profile, work conditions and access to services of migrant sex workers and how they differ from Australian-born sex workers. It also seeks to gather information on the migration experiences of migrant sex workers and their motivations for migrating to Australia.

Overview of the Australian sex industry

A review was undertaken of the literature on the predominant features of the sex industry in Australia—including its legality in each state and territory—and of the findings of previous research on the Australian sex worker population, particularly migrant sex workers.

There are three general legal frameworks applied to sex work in Australia—criminalising certain components of the sex industry; legalising certain components of the sex industry, usually under a licensing or registration scheme; and decriminalising certain aspects of the sex industry. The industry can be categorised into brothel work, massage work, private work, escort work (solo or with an agency) and street-based work, although it is acknowledged that these are simplified distinctions that may not reflect all sex workers’ situations. Sex work is largely illegal in Western Australia and South Australia, and in Tasmania only private work is legal (with private work referring to a person working independently or with another person). Sex work, other than street-based sex work, is legal and regulated under licensing schemes in Victoria, Queensland (except escort agencies) and, partially, in the Northern Territory (escort agencies only). In the Australian Capital Territory, both brothel-based and private sex work have been legalised under a registration scheme. Sex work has been decriminalised in New South Wales since 1995, though restrictions on street-based sex work still apply.

The size of the sex industry in Australia is largely unknown, although it has been estimated that there are approximately 20,000 individuals working as sex workers in Australia in any one year (Quadara 2008). Research suggests that in the sex industry in New South Wales, approximately 40 percent of sex workers work privately, with the other 60 percent working predominantly in sex industry businesses, or as escorts or on the street (Donovan et al. 2012). However, there may be variations in this proportion in other jurisdictions due to the different legal frameworks affecting the legality of private and brothel work.

Research on Australia’s sex worker population suggests that demographic profiles such as age, education and cultural background may vary by state/territory and sex work sector. Current research, mainly in the Sydney City area, suggests that migrants (largely from Asia) make up a substantial proportion of workers in the sex industry, particularly migrants from Thailand and China, and increasingly from South Korea (Donovan et al. 2012).

Although there have been several surveys on the sex worker population generally, research specifically on migrant sex workers is limited. A number of projects with migrant sex workers have generated valuable demographic data on the lives, backgrounds, experiences and needs of migrant sex workers in Australia (Pell et al. 2006; Prostitutes’ Collective of Victoria 1994). The few studies that exist suggest that migrant sex workers may be older than their Australian-born counterparts and less likely to work in a street-based setting (Pell et al. 2006; Woodward et al. 2004). Reports based on immigration data suggest that many have initially entered Australia on tourist (eg Working Holiday and Work and Holiday Visas) and student visas (Bowen 2011; DIMIA, cited in ANAO 2006; Pell et al. 2006). The literature also suggests that several factors (eg language barriers and isolation, gender and race discrimination, stigma attached to sex work and criminalisation of sex work) may intersect for migrant sex workers to increase their vulnerability to experiencing, and barriers to reporting, incidents of violence and exploitation (Allimant & Ostapiej-Piatkowski 2011; Quadara 2008).

With regard to what is known from research into sex workers’ work conditions, sex industry businesses employ workers largely as independent contractors, although there is evidence to suggest that many of the employment relationships reflect that of an employer/employee (Drugs and Crime Prevention Committee 2010; Murray 2003; Northern Territory AIDS and Hepatitis Council 2005; Simmons & David 2012). Further, incidents of debt contracts among migrants working in the industry have been reported anecdotally, and debt bondage has been observed in a few prosecuted cases involving slavery and sexual servitude (Brockett & Murray 1994; IDC 2014).

Survey methodology

The sex worker migration survey used in this study is an expanded and amended version of the Hong Kong sex worker organisation Zi Teng’s 2006–07 Chinese Sex Worker survey administered in Australia by Scarlet Alliance to identify the needs of Chinese sex workers. The survey was redeveloped in collaboration with Scarlet Alliance and its committee of sex workers from Thai, Chinese and Korean-language backgrounds (the steering committee). Sex workers were involved in critical aspects of the research, including in providing essential input into the survey development and managing the survey collection. The survey included questions on demographics, work conditions, migration experiences and access to services.

Sex workers with Korean, Thai and Chinese-language backgrounds were strategically targeted for survey participation, based on research highlighting these groups as forming the majority of migrant sex workers (Brockett & Murray 1994; Donovan et al. 2012; Pell et al. 2006). Surveys were available in English, Thai, Chinese and Korean and were collected face-to-face between February and November 2010 in a range of sex industry businesses across six states and territories, including in:

  • Sydney and Newcastle;
  • Melbourne;
  • Brisbane, Townsville and Toowoomba;
  • Adelaide;
  • Canberra; and
  • Perth and Kalgoorlie.

The survey was also made available online (in English, Thai, Korean and Chinese) and distributed exclusively to Scarlet Alliance members to ensure that only sex workers received it. The online collection ran from September 2010 until November 2010. Of the 592 surveys analysed, the majority (98%, n=582) were collected face-to-face, with two percent (n=10) collected through the online platform.

Research limitations

Accessing the sex worker population, particularly migrant sex workers, is challenging for researchers. However, the targeted recruitment of survey collectors who were past or current sex workers, and who shared the same language background with the targeted sample (sex workers with Thai, Chinese and Korean-language background), ameliorated these issues and resulted in a large sample size. Although the sex worker organisations involved with the survey collection attempted to administer surveys to a wide cross-section of the sex industry, the sample was still predominantly composed of brothel workers, with street-based and private workers under-represented. The survey collection was strengthened where culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) peer educators were employed within the local sex worker organisation. Survey collection among street-based workers was not prioritised due to the known low representation of the targeted sample (migrant sex workers) in this sector (see Pell et al. 2006; Woodward et al. 2004). Overall, 49 percent of respondents were drawn from New South Wales, with a particular lack of respondents from Tasmania and the Northern Territory, where face-to-face survey collection did not occur. This prevented the examination of jurisdictional differences.

The survey may have under-represented sex workers who were working in exploitative and/or tightly controlled environments; however, the survey collectors employed a range of strategies to minimise this bias, including:

  • conducting multiple visits to workplaces at varying times and on various days to engage with different members of management;
  • working with staff at sexual health clinics to approach sex workers to participate in the study, outside the workplace setting;
  • ensuring that sex workers could complete the survey privately without interference or observation; and
  • targeting survey collection at workplaces where there was anecdotal evidence of bad or exploitative work conditions, and those that had recently experienced police or immigration visits.

Another challenge was the high non-response rate to specific questions in the survey, which limited the analysis that could be undertaken and the extent to which these responses could be generalised to the entire sample. This is in part a reflection of the environments in which the survey was administered. The majority of surveys were undertaken while respondents were at work or waiting for a medical appointment, which meant that some of the surveys were not completed.

Survey results

Overall, 70 percent (n=412) of respondents were classified as migrants and one-quarter (n=151) of respondents were classified as non-migrants. For the remaining 29 respondents, migrant status was categorised as missing or not known. Of the migrant sample, 44 percent indicated they were born in Thailand, 26 percent in China and nine percent in South Korea. These groups were targeted for survey administration as they comprise the major language groups of migrant sex workers in Australia. Five percent of migrant respondents were born in New Zealand.

For the majority of migrant respondents, the last country of residence was their country of birth. This suggests that most had immigrated directly to Australia. The exceptions were migrant respondents previously residing in New Zealand. Nearly one-third of these respondents were born elsewhere, mostly in Thailand.

The survey responses also elicited important demographic information that, although not generalisable to the entire sex worker population, may be relevant for those who provide services to migrant and non-migrant sex workers. This included that:

  • 63 percent of migrants who answered the question on age were over 30 years old (compared with 36% of non-migrants);
  • a substantial proportion of both migrant and non-migrant respondents were in a relationship, with 20 percent of migrants who answered the question stating they were married;
  • although providing information on whether they had children appeared to be too sensitive an issue for some respondents (particularly migrants), a substantial number of migrant (n=85) and non-migrant (n=47) respondents reported having children under the age of 15 years; and a substantial proportion of respondents who answered the question on relationship status and children (25% migrants, 24% non-migrants) were single mothers;
  • the majority of migrant respondents born in China (57%) and South Korea (70%) reported low English proficiency (excluding 3 migrants born in China and 1 born in South Korea who did not respond to the question). Three migrant respondents born in China and one born in South Korea self-rated their English proficiency as nil;
  • more than half of migrant and non-migrant respondents who answered the question had tertiary-level qualifications (51% migrants, 66% non-migrants). Migrant respondents were significantly less likely than non-migrants to have tertiary-level qualifications, and more likely to have primary school level to no education; however, migrants were significantly more likely than non-migrants to have a bachelor degree (23% cf 9%) and significantly more likely to have completed high school (27% cf 11%) as their highest qualification.

Education and financial incentives emerged as the major factors in migration. The largest group of migrant respondents indicated they had enrolled in an educational course in order to enter Australia (43% of those who answered the question). However, there was also a substantial proportion who migrated as a result of marrying or in order to be married (25% of those who answered the question).

One-quarter of respondents arranged their own visa (26%); however, they were equally likely to be assisted by their partner (27%) or broker/agent (26%). Perhaps unsurprisingly, using a broker or agent had higher associated costs than organising migration oneself or having a known person (eg a relative, friend and/or partner) arrange it.

Regarding work conditions, migrant and non-migrant respondents appeared to have similar workloads, with no significant difference between migrant and non-migrant respondents in the amount of days and hours worked during the week. The largest proportion of both migrant and non-migrant respondents worked six to 10 hours per day (38% and 45%, respectively, of those who answered the question) and three to four days per week (42% and 45%, respectively, of those who answered the question). These times reflected how long workers were in their workplace or on call, and do not necessarily reflect the time they spent with clients. However, there were key differences in the types of workplaces at which migrant and non-migrant respondents worked and the types of items for which they were charged by their workplaces.

Migrant respondents were more likely than non-migrants to work at massage parlours and less likely to work at brothels. Non-migrant sex workers were more likely to indicate that they had never been on a contract (74% cf 59%), less likely to be charged for living expenses (such as food and work clothes) and more likely to be charged shift fees (ie charges for incidental items such as drinks and toiletries) by their workplace, in comparison with migrant respondents.

The majority of migrant respondents were satisfied with their work conditions in Australia and many intended to stay long term. However, responses from a very small group of survey participants (n=7) suggested discontent with their current and/or past experiences as a sex worker in Australia. Loneliness and isolation were some of the explanations provided.

It was clear from the survey responses that some groups of migrant sex workers experienced difficulties in accessing services, particularly those with low self-rated English proficiency. The barriers to services and information for migrant respondents involved language, a lack of knowledge about what services were available and a fear of using such services; what those fears related to could not be ascertained from the survey responses. This highlights the important need for multilingual support services and translated information.


This research provided a rare insight into the experiences of migrant sex workers. The majority of sex workers sampled were satisfied with their conditions and did not report undertaking extreme workloads. This research has generated new and important information on the migration experiences and mechanisms used by migrant sex workers to travel to Australia. However, it has also emphasised issues that have important implications for those providing mainstream and/or sex work-specific services and support to migrant sex workers. The survey responses and literature highlighted the intersection of social and structural barriers that may marginalise migrant sex workers from accessing services and resources, such as the stigma associated with sex work, limited access to safe migration pathways, fear of deportation and language barriers. The survey responses, however, also outlined possible mediums and strategies to increase migrant sex workers’ access to services and information, such as increasing access to translated material, employing outreach workers who match the language backgrounds of migrant sex workers, and using the internet to increase awareness about relevant mainstream and sex work-specific services, and their rights and responsibilities as a migrant sex worker.

The survey responses also illustrated areas of needs which could be targeted, by identifying that:

  • many migrant sex workers are well educated, in a relationship and/or have children;
  • possible subgroups of migrant sex workers may have different needs, including those who temporarily migrate to Australia specifically to do sex work, international students, and divorced migrant women who engage in sex work while in Australia;
  • subgroups of migrant workers may require appropriate support, such as those with low English proficiency or who identify as feeling lonely or isolated;
  • social stigmatisation impacts on sex workers’ experience of isolation;
  • different workplace types and work arrangements are experienced by migrants in the sex industry, compared with non-migrants; and
  • there is a gap in addressing violence and harassment against sex workers beyond that perpetrated by clients.

This study has also highlighted the value of peer-based approaches in accessing marginalised groups as a means of providing advice and support, and in guiding research and assisting in the gathering of data. In addition, it has raised further areas of research that were outside the scope of, or otherwise not addressed specifically, in the survey, including:

  • the effect of legislation on violence against sex workers;
  • the impact of access to visas on working conditions;
  • the impact of stigma and discrimination on migrant sex workers’ willingness to access services;
  • the extent of the use of inflated debt arrangements in the sex industry, and the nature and extent of contractual arrangements used more generally by migrant sex workers; and
  • the diversity of sex workers and the different needs of those who migrate temporarily specifically to do sex work, and international students and divorced migrant women in the sex industry.
Last updated
3 November 2017