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Linda Kavanagh, communications manager for the Sex Workers Alliance Ireland (SWAI) says “The Trafficking in Persons Report released yesterday highlights that there has been no successful labour trafficking prosecutions in Ireland in the past year. Two prosecutions in Ireland show that the Irish government is still falling short of any meaningful reduction in sex trafficking. SWAI demands that sex work is decriminalised to help identify victims.” 

She continued “It is no surprise to us that victims of labour trafficking were deported even though they self-identified. In a meeting with SWAI in 2020 senior Gardaí told us they did not believe self-identified trafficking victims existed and those claiming this status were doing so solely to avoid deportation.” 

“Year after year the Trafficking in Persons report, and experts, acknowledge that Direct Provision is unsuitable accommodation for trafficking victims, which is a tacit acknowledgement that Direct Provision can compound trauma and is not fit for purpose. We support calls to End Direct Provision.”

“Since 2017 when the law introduced client criminalisation and increased fines and jail time for so-called brothel keeping, Ireland has struggled to identify trafficking victims. Gardaí themselves have admitted to us that intelligence has fallen since the law was introduced. This is because Gardaí are antagonising their best resource to combat sex trafficking, sex workers themselves. 

The sex work law was introduced with great fanfare, with wild claims that it would eradicate sex trafficking, despite it failing to do so in any country that it has been introduced into, including Northern Ireland. Our sex purchase laws have driven sex work underground, moving the small but very real number of sex trafficked victims away from agencies which can help them. 

SWAI condemns trafficking and any form of exploitation in the sex industry. However, the law is failing on its own terms. Sex workers won’t report crimes against them to Gardaí and Gardaí are indifferent to this. In fact, our laws have caused a 92% increase in crime against sex workers. What use are these laws, if not to protect people?

Prevention and resilience to trafficking are better than prosecution after the fact. Central to anti-trafficking strategies in other sectors are workers’ ability to organise, unionise and report. Sex workers are not allowed to organise in this way because they must work alone to work legally. Other avenues of reporting and identification should be available to trafficking victims as recommended by this report. A firewall is needed between immigration and sex crimes so that undocumented people feel safe to report crimes against them without fear of deportation. 

The war in Ukraine is cynically being used by sex work prohibitionists to push their agenda, despite there being no evidence that Ukrainian women are being trafficked here for sex. This is a waste of precious resources that could be used to help vulnerable people such as those in poverty, domestic violence situations, homelessness or addiction. 

If the Gardaí and the state want to combat trafficking and organised crime they should use laws for those specific purposes, not arresting consensual adults. There is no evidence that client criminalisation reduces either sex work or trafficking. How long will Ireland continue to stubbornly refuse to listen to sex workers when they say they want to help, but they can’t?

We deserve to be safe

The Sex Workers Alliance Ireland (SWAI) welcomes the news that the first country in Europe has decriminalised sex work. “Belgium has shown us that decriminalisation of sex work in Europe is possible and Ireland must sit up and pay attention to the mounting evidence that criminalisation of sex work creates vulnerability and increases violence.” 

“Belgium has taken the historic step to ensure that sex workers’ safety is prioritised. By listening to sex workers and allies they removed sex work from criminal laws which allows it to be regulated like any other profession.”  

These laws were brought in while increasing sentences for rape and centring consent within the law. Sex workers have been actively excluded from discussion on consent in Ireland which is extremely dangerous and short-sighted. The decriminalisation of sex work recognises in law that sex work and sex trafficking are separate. Laws that aim to reduce trafficking by “ending demand” for sex work, such as we have in Ireland, have led to sex workers becoming more vulnerable. 

Belgium’s new laws state ensures that minors selling sex remains illegal as does pimping. The law now allows for sex workers to be legitimate employees, with all the rights granted to any other person in the labour force. 

Allowing sex workers to legally hire 3rd parties such as accountants means that they are less open to exploitation. Sex work tends to be a cash business as banks in Belgium were prohibited from allowing sex workers to open an account. This law ensures sex workers can use banks and reduced the precarity that sex workers face. This also means that landlords are no longer prohibited from renting to sex workers. In Ireland, so-called Garda welfare checks have led to the eviction of a number of sex workers this winter. 

Some aspects of the law remain a concern such as advertising remaining illegal. Bans on advertising lead to stigmatisation and sex workers being kicked off social media platforms. Without advertising some workers will be forced to return to outdoor working which is markedly less safe because sex workers have little time to screen their clients on the street. 

We await the full details of this law but this news has given us hope while we await the overdue review of our own laws which has seen violence against sex workers increase by 92%. Sex workers deserve to be heard in Irish Society and Ireland must emulate Belgium by listening to active sex workers about what they need. 

Today is International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers and we want to highlight how, through government policies, the state pushes people into sex work.Years of austerity, the housing crisis, lack of supports for people using drugs, Direct Provision, limits to how many hours international students can work, lack of decent employment, lack of affordable childcare and precarious work are all contributing factors as to why people enter sex work.

Aoife Bloom, board member of SWAI said “Once people have entered sex work the current law in place ensures they are not safe. Client criminalisation was introduced in 2017 along with increases in the penalties and a potential jail sentence for working together for safety. This means that to work legally sex workers must work alone. Almost all sex workers we speak to would like the option of sharing a premises for safety. Most of the people who have been arrested for so-called brothel-keeping have been young, migrant sex workers.” 

She continues “Client criminalisation was introduced with great fanfare with the supposed aim of ending the demand for sex work and thereby ending trafficking in Ireland. It has utterly failed to achieve that goal. Focusing on the criminalisation of the clients of sex workers has done nothing to address the real root causes of human trafficking. Since we marked this day last year Ireland has languished at almost the bottom of the Trafficking in Persons report. Since last year trans people, especially trans sex workers of colour, are being murdered in record numbers globally. Since last year the violence which increased by 92% after the introduction of the law has not abated. Trans sex workers were the targets for the initial spate of violence that occurred here. 

Client criminalisation has not ended sex work in Ireland but it has given the client the upper hand in the negotiating process. A sex worker has to ensure the client feels safe as the client is the one taking the risk. The legal pressure that clients face is absorbed by sex workers. This means shorter negotiation times, more risk-taking such as not using a condom, less screening and taking on clients you would normally refuse to make up for lost income. The reality is sex work is still partially if not fully criminalised in Ireland. When you decriminalise the act of selling sex yet make all the conditions for selling sex illegal, it is just ideology. 

Recently a spate of so-called welfare checks by Gardaí have terrorised sex workers and even resulted in evictions. In the middle of winter, during an increase in the numbers of people contracting COVID, at the height of the housing crisis sex workers are being forced out of their homes by their landlords who cannot rent to them for fear of prosecution. This is the direct result of the law passed in 2017 which was supposed to end exploitation. Both the Gardaí and landlords are obliged to follow the law. The reality is that the Gardaí can’t help people that they are criminalising.”

“We are already degraded, objectified and mistreated by so many abusers and sometimes by the general public, we do not need to be treated in the same manner by the government or by officers of the law.”

– Naomi, active sex worker in Ireland  

Aoife says “Criminalising the purchase of sex has done nothing to remove the reasons why women sell sex in the first place, and neither did lockdown. No supports were put in place when this law was introduced. Sex work is an economic activity and sex workers need rights like all other workers. The first step is to decriminalise sex work so that the health and safety of sex workers can be prioritised.”

“I want it to be safe for everyone. It’s all about our safety.”

– Beth, current outdoor worker

#DecrimforSafety #SupportSafeSexWork

This Trans Day of Remembrance LGBTQI+ organisations must stand with the Sex Workers Alliance of Ireland (SWAI) when we call for the full decriminalisation of sex work. Any alternative is putting the health and safety of trans people at risk.

Trans Day of Remembrance

Aoife Bloom, board member of SWAI says “Today, on Trans Day of Remembrance 2021 we demand that society acknowledges how the majority of trans people who were killed in 2021 were trans sex workers. 

2021 is a record-breaking year for violence against trans people. 375 gender diverse people were murdered and the majority of those murdered were black and migrant. Over half of those murdered were sex workers. When we talk about transphobic violence and Trans Day of Remembrance we’re usually talking about trans sex workers of colour.”

She continues “Here in Ireland, trans sex workers are often the victims of the spate of violence that occurred directly after the law changed in 2017. Liam Vickers preyed on a vulnerable trans woman and was enabled by our recently changed laws. The change in law created an environment wherein our vulnerability was highlighted in the media, without providing any new protections for us whatsoever. The law increased criminalisation of people co-working, under “brothel-keeping” legislation, distancing us from authorities, and also forcing us to work alone if we were trying to work within legal parameters. Since the law changed in 2017 we have seen a 92% increase in violent crimes against us. 

Recent research by the European Sex Worker Alliance (ESWA) highlights that 83% of sex workers surveys felt that transphobia had a detrimental effect on their mental health. Trans people are over represented in the sex work community because they are marginsalised and unable to find other work. Sex work is an economic activity, after all.

Our current model of client criminalisation does not respond to the circumstances of deep poverty, domestic violence, homelessness, precarity and drug use that may lead to people selling sex. Sex workers exist on the sharp end of misogyny, racism, transphobia and other forms of marginalisation. Sex workers must work alone to work legally which increases our vulnerability.

How long more can government, health authorities, and gender equality bodies here ignore the growing body of evidence that shows that their policies are damaging and endangering to the physical and mental health of this precarious group of people?

SWAI demands that organisations that claim to support trans people start to advocate and agitate for the full decriminalisation of sex work. Decriminalisation is essential for combating trans marginalisation and HIV rates, building trust with marginalised communities and providing access to sexual health supports. You cannot be pro LGBT rights without being pro-sex worker rights.” 

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The Sex Workers Alliance Ireland (SWAI) welcomes the news that OnlyFans will not proceed with new changes in OnlyFans announced last week which would ban sexually explicit contentThis reversal is due to the sex work community rallying and ensuring that the shock and fear our community felt was heard.

Aoife Bloom, board member of SWAI said “The global pandemic continues and while we are slowly reopening some sex workers are supplementing their income through online work. Throughout the pandemic the number of OnlyFans content creators increased dramatically which undoubtedly increased the profits for the shareholder immensely.” 

She continued “Sex workers are familiar with exclusion from financial platforms. PayPal, which have its European headquarters in Ireland, have closed the accounts of sex workers, refused to pay out the remaining balance which amounts to stealing money, even for those who do not use the platform to be paid for sex work. GoFundMe, a popular crowdfunding site that many trans people use to raise money to pay for the surgeries they do not have access to here in Ireland, does not allow sex workers to use their platform. Our COVID hardship fund in 2020 sought to get cash straight into the hands of sex workers who really needed it and we struggled with a reliable way to deliver it.  May we remind people that sex work in Ireland is not illegal, at least according to the proponents of the Nordic Model of client criminalisation in Ireland.” 

“These new regulations would have been a fallout from the FOSTA SESTA laws, introduced in the United States in 2018. These laws made advertising sex work illegal which meant workers could no longer use these sites to find clients and many were forced back to their exploitative managers (pimps) or working in the street. We have seen that these third parties have contacted OnlyFans workers in the wake of the proposed changes. Stigma and marginalisation make sex workers reliant on third parties which opens them up to exploitation.” 

“Reducing the income of sex workers is a core tenant of the End Demand model of client criminalisation. Many sex workers were not included in government supports which meant that over 50% of the sex workers we spoke to were unable to give up in-person work. As we have stated time and again reducing the income of sex workers does nothing to end exploitation and trafficking in the industry and in fact make sex workers less safe. Sex workers could have been forced to move away from OnlyFans into in-person work. This loss of income could have forced workers into taking risks such as not using condoms or taking on clients that they would normally turn down.” 

“Despite the claims of anti-sex work organisations in Ireland and elsewhere, there is no evidence that people have been coerced into creating content. The platform allows workers to set their own time, be their own boss and avoid exploitative pornography production companies. It is clear that anti-sex work ideology is more important than mitigating risk for people working in the industry. These financial institutes claim a moral authority but continue to work with companies that are responsible for climate change, or the opioid crisis.” 

“Sex workers are people, it seems we have to remind the world of this. Sex workers are excluded from financial institutions and social media platforms, even when the mantra for the past 18 months has been to stay indoors. The organisations calling for this exclusion have dark histories of religious oppression and anti-choice rhetoric, including in Ireland. Make no mistake, they will not stop at excluding sex workers, other marginalised people will be next. Where will this end?”

“Sex workers are the canaries in the coal mine for many regressive laws and regulations. Decriminalisation of sex work is the first step in ending the stigma of our work. We are entitled to work as safely as possible. Decriminalisation will not legalise exploitation or trafficking. Our current legal model is failing sex workers and has done nothing to keep us safe since its introduction.” 

Red umbrella yellow backgroundToday, 30th July is World Day Against Trafficking in Person. Ireland continues to languish in the Tier 2 Watchlist of the Trafficking in Persons Report, as we fail to tackle the root causes of trafficking while pursuing failed strategies such as criminalising aspects of sex work.

In 2017 Ireland introduced client criminalisation, increased penalties for sex workers co-working in a bid to ‘End Demand’ of sex work and thereby somehow reduce people being trafficked into Ireland. This blanket policy has had far-reaching consequences which we warned about prior to its introduction. Only two clients have been prosecuted under the law. Many more sex workers have been arrested, deported or threatened with deportation for working together for safety. Violence against sex workers has increased by 92% while trust in Gardaí has decreased to 1%. 

It has also failed to reduce trafficking in Ireland. Reports funded by the Department of Justice show that we are underestimating the number of trafficking victims in Ireland by 38%. Convictions of traffickers have fallen while the number of victims identified has increased since 2017.  

Organised crime flourishes in industries where a good or service is criminalised in some way. An Organised Crime in Prostitution Unit of the Gardaí was recently established, however, this unit enforces laws that marginalise sex workers and damage trust in the Gardaí. Criminalising any aspect of sex work forces it underground, away from services and justice. Politicians who support the prohibition of sex work are misguidedly supporting organised crime. 

The review of the law which began in 2020 gives us an opportunity to reimagine our anti-trafficking efforts as well as putting the health and safety of those in the sex industry first. We need to tackle the reasons why trafficking exists such as repressive border regimes which increase exploitation. We need a firewall between immigration and the sex work unit of the Gardaí so that any undocumented person will feel free to report abuse without fear of deportation. 

This review could also highlight that sex workers ourselves are best placed to highlight exploitation in our industry. Aoife Bloom, board member of the Sex Workers Alliance Ireland (SWAI) says “No one wants trafficking and abuse to end more than sex workers ourselves. Creating laws that deal with sex trafficking separate to those that deal with other forms of labour trafficking have become anti-migrant or anti-migration measures. Our brothel-keeping laws have been applied in a racist way as highlighted by IHREC. Sex work is an economic activity and sex workers need to be able to enjoy labour rights that other workers enjoy. Trafficking can be tackled by strong unions and proper reporting mechanisms as in other sectors of the economy, but our laws prevent sex workers from doing this and it makes us more vulnerable.”

She continues “SWAI calls for the decriminalisation of sex work along with PICUM Members (Platform for International Cooperation on Undocumented Migrants, International Labour Organization and The Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women (GAATW). Decriminalisation of sex work does not decriminalise trafficking but will ensure that the Gardaí can utilise the best resource they have against sex trafficking, sex worker ourselves.”

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Yesterday a man who attacked and robbed two sex workers working together for safety was jailed for 10 years. 

Aoife Bloom, board member of SWAI says “The Sex Workers Alliance Ireland (SWAI) welcomes the news that a man who violently attacked two members of our community was jailed for 10 years. We commend the bravery of these two workers in helping to bring this man to justice. However, we feel that this harrowing crime was entirely preventable. These violent assaults are the direct result of the introduction of client criminalisation and the increase in penalties against so-called brothel-keeping in 2017.”

“SWAI and other allies warned that these new laws would push sex workers away from Gardaí and drive the industry underground. Those who work together for safety risk arrest and jail time. Criminals know this and target sex workers precisely because the law forces sex workers to work alone to work legally. Those who are co-working are unlikely to contact the Gardaí if they are the victims of a crime. This makes us sitting ducks!”

“Thankfully the victims were not discouraged by these laws from reporting the assault in this particular instance. However we know that violent incidents like this have become more common since 2017 while the trust in the Gardaí necessary to report crimes like these has fallen. As a result successful prosecutions such as this one have become more difficult.”

Since 2017 there has been a 92% increase in violence against sex workers. There has also been a reduction in trust in the Gardaí. Less than 1% of sex workers feel comfortable in reporting crimes against them. The victims, in this case, were migrant workers, forced to work by economic circumstances. As we face into a recession, more and more people will enter this industry.” 

“We want to reduce the harm in sex work and ensure people in the industry are as safe as they can be. Sex work prohibitionists and misguided politicians who support our regressive laws say that sex work can never be safe. We beg of them to just listen to sex workers when we say that Ireland needs to decriminalise sex work so we can be safe. Their ideology is not more important than our safety.”

For the second year in a row Ireland languishes in the Tier 2 Watchlist of the Trafficking in Persons report. Ireland has still not persecuted anyone for trafficking in 7 years and this year marks the fewest trafficking victims identified since 2013. 

Aoife Bloom, sex worker and spokesperson for the Sex Workers Alliance Ireland (SWAI) says “This report highlights how the Nordic Model of client criminalisation has failed. The law was brought in with great fanfare as it sought to end the exploitation of people in the sex industry by ending demand. Since then victim identification has fallen and anecdotally we know that Garda intelligence on trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation has decreased since the introduction of this law. Violence against sex workers has also increased by 92% in that time. 

“The Trafficking in Persons report and experts acknowledge that Direct Provision is unsuitable accommodation for trafficking victims, which is a tacit acknowledgement that Direct Provision can compound trauma and is not fit for purpose. We support the Movement for Asylum Seekers (MASI) and other organisations’ calls to End Direct Provision.

“We welcomed the news earlier this year on the introduction of the National Referral mechanism and we anticipate the inclusion of NGOs who do not conflate all sex work with sex trafficking. We also support the report’s call for an exemption for crimes committed while trafficked, as we know in Northern Ireland a woman was convicted of trafficking while being a victim of trafficking herself, and migrants have been prosecuted for working in cannabis grow houses while being labour trafficked.

“The government didn’t initiate any prosecutions for labour trafficking in 2020 but has spent significant money on ‘Awareness-raising’ schemes. The fishing industry has been highlighted as a site of exploitation by NGO’s working with migrants yet no trafficking victims were identified in 2020.”

“Sex workers have not been included as part of Ireland’s anti-trafficking forum. Sex workers and sex worker-led organisations need to be recognised as a vital part of anti-trafficking efforts. Unfortunately, Ireland’s anti-trafficking efforts intersect with our repressive laws which seek to prohibit all sex work. This conflation of sex work and sex trafficking makes sex workers more vulnerable to exploitation and violence by pushing their livelihood underground, it also diverts resources away from fighting trafficking and prolongs the suffering and exploitation of trafficking victims. In fact, these laws have focused almost exclusively on young migrant sex workers working together for safety.

“Sex workers can be an ally in anti-trafficking efforts but we are unutilised and over-policed, making more difficult for us to report exploitation. 

“Sex trafficking is a complex and abhorrent crime and the solutions to trafficking in Ireland lie in prevention. Oppressive border controls and lack of legal migration avenues, as well as poverty and addiction increase trafficking. SWAI also calls for a firewall between immigration and other parts of the justice system so that undocumented people who have been exploited, assaulted or raped do not fear deportation.

“Sex work must be recognised as work so that sex workers can enjoy the same labour rights as other workers. In other sectors, strong unions and proper reporting mechanisms have a role to play in ending exploitation. But as sex workers operate in a partially criminalised environment we cannot organise like other workers. Separating out sex trafficking from other forms of trafficking has created laws that make us more vulnerable. 

“SWAI continues our call to decriminalise sex work to ensure the health and safety of consensual sex workers and those exploited in the sex industry. The focus on clients and sex workers working together for safety does nothing to combat trafficking. Decriminalisation of sex work will not decriminalise trafficking but will allow sex workers to report exploitation without fear.”

Press release in speech bubble

Sex Workers Alliance Ireland (SWAI) Welcomes Minister McEntee’s Initiativeto Expunge 607 Convictions for the Sale of Sex but says it does not go far enough. 

The Criminal Law Sexual Offenses Act 2017 criminalised the purchase of sex and nearly tripled penalties for sex workers working in pairs or groups. In the late stages of the passing of the bill SWAI managed to succeed in getting decriminalisation of outdoor workers as an amendment, despite it not being the original intention of the law.

Kate McGrew, Director SWAI: “We can assume that the convictions that are being overturned are instead for outdoor workers, and not for workers sharing a workspace, as under this law they face tripled penalties, and potential jail time, We have seen workers serving sentences under this law since its inception in 2017. However outdoor workers are criminalised in a number of other ways, including under COVID regulations.

For sex workers who would like to move on to other work, a criminal record is a major obstacle in doing so. SWAI demands that criminal records for brothel-keeping also be expunged, as this is defined as criminalisation of merely co-working, and this is where the majority of sex worker convictions have occurred since 2017. This law continues to force us to work alone if we are to work legally.” 

SWAI advocates for full decriminalisation of the sex industry, including a reversal of client criminalisation, which criminalises our income and pushes us deeper into precarity,  in order to remove barriers to justice. Worldwide evidence has shown that this is the best legislative model for best outcomes for a marginalised and diverse population.”

Decrim for SAfetySex Workers Alliance Ireland (SWAI) demands that the courts obey the blanket ban on deportations reinstated by the Taoiseach since Level 5 Covid restrictions began.

A 32-year-old Polish native with an 11-month old son was handed down a suspended sentence yesterday in Waterford court for facilitating prostitution. She was given the choice of a 1 year prison sentence in Ireland or leaving the Republic within the next 14 days, with a promise to not return for 5 years. Her resultant departure from Ireland – whilst not officially a deportation – flies in the face of the health advice that led the Taoiseach to reinstate the deportation moratorium. 

The judge incorrectly stated that “the sale of sex is a crime”. He, however, acknowledged that no one involved had been coerced and that the sex work was an economic activity. Notably, there was mention of a man present whom it was believed the women in the apartment were “fearful” of, yet it was the new mother herself who was faced with any charge. The judge also mentioned that “Society has to be protected from this sort of behaviour” harkening back to an old Ireland where stigma and shame of sexuality subjugated women.

This is another case where the brunt of the so-called brothel-keeping laws are born by migrant sex workers, as highlighted by the brothel-keepers research. The brothel-keeping law means that even two workers working together for safety are working illegally which increases our precarity.

Kate McGrew, sex worker and director Sex Workers Alliance Ireland, stated: “We advocate for a decriminalised sex industry in order that sex workers can avail of safe and vetted work environments. It is due to the current criminalization, direct and by proxy, that sex workers are forced onto a black market where criminals are poised to take advantage of our lack of options.”

She continues: “Where we are concerned about the well-being of those in the sex industry, we must acknowledge that our ability to make safe decisions is curtailed by this criminal law.”