Press release in speech bubble

SWAI wholeheartedly condemn the Department of Justice’s Handling of Sex Work Laws Review

The Sex Workers Alliance of Ireland (SWAI) expresses deep disappointment and frustration regarding the Minister for Justice’s written answer to the parliamentary question put forth by Catherine Connolly on the 22nd February. This follows the Minister’s refusal to engage with SWAI on the processes and setbacks that the review of Part 4 of the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) 2017 report has already undergone. 

Mardi Kennedy, director of SWAI said “Sex workers, the primary stakeholders in this review, feel marginalised and unheard. The independent reviewer stepped back recently, and we raised concerns at the time that the knowledge that was gained from the meetings held has been lost. The news that the Department of Justice thinks it can continue this ludicrous process would be laughable if it weren’t so dangerous.”

Linda Kavanagh spokesperson for SWAI added “I was in attendance during the meeting with Maura Butler and I noted that the meeting wasn’t recorded. We know from consultation with the sex workers who were involved that their meetings were not recorded either. How will the assistant to the independent reviewer be able to convey the vital information that sex workers imparted in these meetings to people who were not present through notes? 

Active sex workers are the most important voices needed in this review. It is of vital importance for sex workers’ voices in shaping policies that impact their lives. Meaningful inclusion of sex worker’s voices in this process was set out in the terms of reference but this has failed. Full engagement of sex workers has not been attempted.”

She continues “Despite numerous requests, SWAI has not received any response regarding the review process, leading us to demand a scrapping and redoing of the review. The Minister’s ongoing refusal to meet is seen as a disregard for the lived experiences and safety concerns of sex workers under the Nordic model of client criminalisation.

Sex workers are questioning whether ideology is prioritised over evidence, research, and the well-being of the community in this process. The recent setback in the review process further raises concerns about the government’s commitment to understanding the impact of the laws on sex workers’ lives. SWAI demands transparency, meaningful engagement, and a thorough review process to restore trust and credibility.

Would it have been acceptable for the Department of Health to conduct the review of the current abortion law, which, we note, was called for later than this review (2019) and was conducted and published last year? Why are only some women’s issues important to this government? Why are only some women listened to about the policies that shape their lives?

This past year has been especially devastating, marked by the tragic murder of a sex worker in Limerick, low trust in Gardaí, and the annual raids disguised as welfare checks that sex workers regularly endure. SWAI urges the government to address the pressing issues faced by sex workers and to prioritise their safety, well-being, and rights by decriminalising sex work in Ireland.

As we approach the first anniversary of the murer of Geila Ibram, SWAI reiterates its call for the decriminalisation of sex work as a crucial step towards ensuring the safety, rights, and dignity of sex workers in Ireland. SWAI also highlights the impact of criminalisation on sex workers’ mental health, emphasising the need for decriminalisation to address the stigma and structural inequalities that contribute to stress and poor mental health among sex workers. The ongoing harassment campaign, phishing scams, and threats of violence against sex workers underscore the urgency of addressing the harmful effects of criminalisation. 

We want to thank Catherine Connolly for her ongoing dedication to ensuring this process comes to a satisfactory conclusion.

Press release in speech bubble

When will the state own up to the fact that the law has failed and decriminalise sex work in Ireland?

Mardi Kennedy, coordinator of the Sex Workers Alliance Ireland (SWAI) commented on today’s guilty verdict of a man who assaulted two migrant sex workers in 2020 “The case today shows that the current sex work law in Ireland is failing on its own terms. The law did nothing to prevent the violent behaviour of this client.

We commend these brave workers who came forward and ensured the prosecution of a predator. However we note that this is unusual. Less than 1% of sex workers report crimes against them to the Gardaí, compared to 81% of the general population who have trust in Gardaí. How does this statistic not concern the Minister for Justice?” 

Linda Kavanagh, communications manager of SWAI continues “In the wake of the change in the law in 2017, SWAI was the first point of contact for workers who were assaulted. As this case today proves, this spate of violence against sex workers has not abated. 

Everyone deserves to be safe in their job, and sex work is an economic activity. The sex workers in this case noted that they worked for themselves, they were not being exploited or coerced. 

The criminalisation of the purchase of sex does nothing to address the economic needs of sex workers. In fact, what it has done is made sex workers less safe and pushed sex work underground and away from services that can support them. 

The strategy of so-called End Demand has created a climate of hostility and scarcity which means that sex workers may feel the need to take on clients who they would normally refuse or engage in riskier behaviour. It empowers clients to demand sex with no condom, for example.”

We MUST decriminalise sex work so that workers can work together for safety. We demand the Gardaí, the Department of Justice and supporters of the law listen to sex workers about what they need. They have the power to right these wrongs.” 

* An earlier version of the blog post stated incorrectly that the sex workers were trans.

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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. 

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.”