Sex workers across Britain are set to go on strike on Friday in a bid to force the Government to improve their working conditions – by making them pay tax.
Hundreds of prostitutes across the country are set to walk the streets on Friday night to protest unfair and dangerous conditions.
During the strike on International Women’s Day (Fri), the workers will refuse to sell sex or do work for money and get on the picket line.
The protests are to highlight the dangerous and unfair conditions they say are caused by stringent prostitution laws.
Although prostitution is legal in the UK, other related activities such as soliciting in a public place, owning or managing a brothel, pimping and pandering are criminalised.
Selling sex in private in not illegal, nor is working as a prostitute in a brothel as long as the worker is not involved in management – meaning the person running the brothel can be charged with a criminal offence but the prostitute cannot.
However, because of the criminalised nature of the industry, sex workers working together from the same flat or house for safety live in “constant fear” of being arrested for brothel-keeping.
The biggest demonstration will be in seedy Soho, central London.
Sex worker Katie Smith said: “If we work outside, we are criminalised for soliciting or loitering – which pushes us to work in dark, isolated spots in an attempt to avoid the police.
“It signifies to violent offenders that society views us as outside of the category of people who deserve protection, and it makes it hard for us to leave prostitution if we have a conviction.
“If we work indoors, we can be arrested for brothel-keeping if we work with a friend for safety.
“This forces us to choose between working alone – with makes us vulnerable to violence – or working with a friend, which makes us vulnerable to arrest.
“Raids and arrests targeting sex workers who are sharing a flat for safety are completely routine all across the country.
“If we work for a manager, the fact that that manager is criminalised means we have zero recourse if we want to challenge bad working conditions – there can be no labour law in a criminalised workplace.
“By striking on international women’s day, we want to stand with all other women – and say that no woman is safe if prostitutes aren’t safe.”
Katie works with Sex Worker Advocacy and Resistant Movement (SWARM), a collection which campaigns for sex workers’ rights.
The 29-year-old from Glasgow, who will be striking in Bristol this Friday, said: “Women are pushed into sex work through the underpaid and undervalued nature of our work elsewhere, and when we turn to prostitution we are punished for our attempts to refuse poverty.
“At the moment, prostitution law gives all the power to the police, to our managers, and to violent men – sex workers are left with no power.
“If we had decriminalisation, sex workers would have rights and safety.”
Katie, who has worked as a prostitute since her early 20s, went into the industry because she was in “a low-waged, precarious service-industry work and I felt desperate to escape”.
She said: “I’ve worked in brothels and on my own – when I’ve shared a flat with a friend we’ve often had to have a conversation about that would happen if the flat was raided – which of us could more ‘safely’ take the rap for it.
“If you’re a mother or if you have an insecure immigration status then the harms of criminalisation are tripled for you, so you have to have that conversation about who would take the blame in a raid.”
Katie is hoping Britain will follow New Zealand’s example, where all aspects of the sex work industry are legal – even if it means they end up having to pay tax.
She said: “The legal model that we’re aiming for is something like the decriminalisation they have in New Zealand – street-based sex workers can work in safety, without having to fear arrest for themselves or their clients.
“Indoor workers can share flats with friends in small groups without fearing arrest, and if you work for a manager, that manager is subject to labour laws that were designed with sex workers’ input.
“So for example, managers are required by law to keep safer sex supplies on the premises.
“In 2014 a second worker in New Zealand took her manager to an employment tribunal for sexual harassment, and won.
“The tribunal ruled that sex workers, like all other workers, deserve to be able to work without sexual harassment.
“Obviously that’s an amazing victory, because sex workers are so often seen as ‘unrapeable’ – this ruling shows how decriminalisation can extend worker’s rights protections to sex workers.
“Such a ruling would be absolutely impossible in a criminalised workplace.
“It shows how decriminalisation reduces the power of managers and increases the power of sex workers – under decriminalisation sex workers gain the right to demand better working conditions, and have the possibility of recourse if those demands are not met.
“Ultimately though, sex workers don’t just want to stop at decriminalisation, it is necessary but not sufficient to transform the conditions of our work.
“We must also demand an end to immigration enforcement, reform of Britain’s terrible drug laws, and an end to poverty.
“If everyone had the resources they needed, no one would have to sell sex – that’s the world we want to work towards.
“But sex workers also need safety in the here-and-now, hence our demand for decriminalisation.”