The current pandemic has significantly affected all sectors of the labour market; however, some categories of workers have been affected more than others, being exposed to a combination of factors. This is the case of sex workers: according to the ICRSE (International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers) over the last couple of years, limitations have been put in place, involving the rights and freedoms of people employed in this field; a measure considered necessary to fight and prevent criminal organisations, human trafficking and to improve public health.

Before stepping into the current situation, it is important to point out the general European scheme on the subject. In this debate, Europe is divided; the continent follows 3 main juridical models: the first is the prohibitionist model, which criminalises both sex workers and their clients, this is found mainly in Eastern European countries. From the first legal approach, derives a neo-prohibitionist model, the so-called “Nordic Model”. The Nordic Model was developed in Sweden in 1999 and was the first law to prohibit the purchase of sex, not the workers themselves. The vision that inspired this approach came from Mr. José Mendes Bota, a Portuguese politician on behalf of the Committee on Equality and Non-Discrimination; in a statement he expressed that, “Some say that slavery has disappeared from European civilization. That is incorrect. It still exists, but now it weighs only on women and it is called prostitution”

The third is the abolitionist model, consisting of the depenalisation of both sex workers and the clients, while collateral conducts of prostitution such as exploitation and abetting are punished, it is most common model. The criminalisation of such activities is aimed at lowering the threats of criminal organizations and, at the same time, to have a positive impact on the rights of sex workers.- even if this type of protection has results that are deemed too weak to ensure effective protection.

The last model is based on regulated activities with the nationalisation of the workplace; this has been adopted by Holland, Germany, Turkey, Austria, Switzerland, Greece, Hungary and Latvia. This particular model provides taxes and restrictions in the activities related to prostitution and the State, also providing compulsory medical examinations for sex workers, for the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases.

This profession is clearly at stake due to the COVID-19 emergency, as it’s very difficult to respect all the norms regulating the cohabitation with the virus and in most European countries, workers are not legally recognized by the State or are considered outlaws.

In countries where prostitution is legalised and regulated by the State, there are forms of assistance for self-employed people that exist; however, the costs of living does not seem to be covered by the aid given by the State and from this derives the use of illegal markets. Another aspect to be considered is that in Amsterdam, the larger portion of clients are international tourists which has led to further questions regarding the re-opening of this particular business sector within the boundaries of the law can be issued.

On May 1st, was the international worker’s day, many sex worker association’s inside and outside of Europe published their own statements, claiming the need for better working conditions and social assistance in the current situation.

The ICRSE’s statement stated that: “On Mayday, ICRSE will join it’s voices to the voices of billions of informal workers globally, demanding ‘a new model of work and production, equitable and redistributive, that recognizes and values all forms of work.”

Another relevant source is the statement published by the Sex Workers Outreach Project-USA, a United States social justice network claiming the protection of fundamental human rights of people involved in this sector. It works at both a local and national level, with the objective of overcoming the social stigma, through education and advocacy- as explained in the Mission Statement. “SWOP promotes decriminalisation as the best means of decreasing harm and promoting agency amongst people in the sex trade. SWOP adopts the principles and practices of nonviolent action in order to reduce violence and achieve dignity and rights for sex workers. SWOP is committed to the respect, safety, and autonomy of all sex workers, and seeks to amplify the voices of those who are often left out of discourse, around the issues we address collectively as a social justice movement”.

On Mayday, SWOP voiced that, “Today, sex workers are often stigmatised, marginalised and criminalised and face constant discrimination, violence and abuse. ”

All in all, The pandemic is pushing society towards an urgency of renewing and adapting to new standards, but this process needs new approaches to various aspects of society in order to conform with human rights. Moreover, legal markets are at stake as illegal businesses are seen as a potential threat to the social composition.

By Sofia Basile

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