Sex work, crime & the working class

Posted on August 17, 2014


All who sell their labour in order to survive are workers. And all workers are, to one or other degree, exploited in that they are paid less than the final value of the work they do. Within a profit-driven system it could hardly be otherwise.

This is the general trade union definition and approach. But it is not without its problems.

What, for example, about entertainers? Musicians, singers, comedians and others certainly work, have often spent years honing their skills and are paid vastly varying rates by audiences of employees and employers.

Teachers too, do not produce evident surplus value, but certainly do essential work and, as such, clearly qualify as workers. What all have in common is that they sell their labour in order to survive and that, in the final analysis, is what defines a worker.

And all workers should, in this day and age, have the right to organise, to form trade unions and to enjoy all the rights and obligations in a constitutional democracy. This is the position agreed by Cosatu and its affiliated unions. Teachers, musicians and other entertainers all have recognised unions.

But there are other unions that disagree with this broad brush approach. And the area of disagreement is prostitution.

Are those who sell their labour to gratify the carnal urges of clients workers deserving of constitutional rights and the protection of labour laws? Or should they be regarded as victims of exploitation or even as criminals and moral degenerates?

This has been an argument across centuries as various societies have debated the role and rights of what is generally referred to as the world’s oldest profession. These arguments are now very much back on the global agenda as the economic crisis continues to bite.

Because, in times of economic difficulty, people turn, often in desperation, to any available form of income generation, from poaching to theft. In these circumstances, the number of prostitutes also tends to increase.

But should the sale of sex be equated with poaching, theft and robbery? Should the practice remain criminal or should it be decriminalised? In South Africa, under a 1957 law, the sale of sex is illegal and, since 2007, so is the purchase: both prostitute and client are, therefore criminalised.

Thirteen years ago, the South African Law Reform Commission produced a discussion paper, looking at this controversial area. Since then, the battle between those favouring effective legalisation of prostitution and those wanting better enforcement and harsher penalties has raged in the background.

By 2012, Cosatu had adopted the decriminalisation position, along with the ANC Women’s League and other groups such as the Commission for Gender Equality agree. Opposing them remains a range of individuals and organisations, including most of the churches.

But now the issue has again started to emerge strongly — and not only in South Africa in Women’s Month. A combination of the economic crisis and the spread of the internet has seen both an apparent increase in the numbers of prostitutes, but also in the manner of advertising and making contact. There now even exists an app in Europe that enables cell phone users to establish the whereabouts, appearance and price of the nearest seller of sex.

Some of these details emerged this week in a feature in the authoritative Economist magazine. It produced a major survey of what is a multi-billion dollar, and still largely illegal, activity.

At the same time, there have been complaints, especially in Cape Town, of increasing numbers of prostitutes soliciting in the streetss. As a result, the issue is again coming to the fore.

And now there is a newer entrant into the debate: Embrace Dignity (ED), a non-governmental organisation, headed by former parliamentarian, Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge. ED proposes legalising the sale, but not the purchase of sex, an approach adopted in Sweden in 1999 and now applied in Denmark and Iceland.

The object is clearly to curtail prostitution, but even in Sweden the jury is still out on whether it has had that effect. But ED plans, in a seminar in Cape Town next week, to put forward the arguments for their “third way” approach.

The organisation does so at a time when there are signs that decriminalisation and state regulation may be on the cards. After all, such a move would both reduce the unemployment numbers while bringing a very lucrative business into the tax net.