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The Irish trade union movement throws sex workers under a bus

The Irish Congress of Trade Unions is an umbrella organisation representing nearly all the active trade unions in Ireland, north and south. A full list of its member unions can be found here (by industry sector) or here (alphabetically).

ICTU has made a submission to the Irish government’s public consultation on the prostitution laws. As you can see here, where their submission is reproduced is full, most of it is just a cut-and-paste job of text sent to them by the Turn Off The Red Light campaign, which seeks the introduction of the Swedish model. But there is one part of ICTU’s original contribution which I found remarkable. A few paragraphs down the submission cites – clearly for the purpose of endorsing – the view of the Technical, Electrical & Engineering Union‘s General Secretary that

prostitution could not be considered “work”

ICTU didn’t invent this view, of course. But it strikes me as taking on a much graver significance when held by trade unionists than by, say, radical feminists or religious puritans. Because the corollary of prostitution not being work is, of course, that the people engaged in it aren’t workers – and are therefore not entitled to the rights that trade unions (theoretically) exist to defend. Effectively, what they’re saying to sex workers who want those rights is: piss off, and call us when you’ve found a real job.

This position puts ICTU at odds with the International Labour Organization, to which it is of course affiliated. While the ILO takes an officially neutral stance on the legal status of sex work, it has made abundantly clear that it recognises the sex industry as a de facto economic sector, and people who sell sex as engaging in a form of labour. In its groundbreaking 1998 report The Sex Sector: The Economic and Social Bases of Prostitution in Southeast Asia, for example, editor Lin Lean Lim proposes that

For those adult individuals who freely choose sex work, the policy concerns should focus on improving their working conditions and social protection, and ensuring that they are entitled to the same labour rights and benefits as other workers.

The international standards developed by the ILO also reflect this position – albeit impliedly rather than explicitly, in their frequent reference to “all branches of economic activity” (my emphasis). The 1981 Occupational Safety and Health Convention is an example.

And what about the jurisdictions which have actually incorporated those standards into their own laws around sex work, such as New Zealand?

Abel, Fitzgerald and Brunton, “The Impact of the Prostitution Reform Act on the Health and Safety of Sex Workers” (2007)

The phenomenal figures in the last three rows of that table are the consequence of legislation which was expressly designed to treat sex work as work – legislation, in other words, designed to do exactly what ICTU says the law shouldn’t do. And thus ICTU, which is a trade union body hence theoretically a workers’ rights organisation, would reject a framework agreed to be rights-protective by over 90% of the workers operating within it, because they don’t consider them “workers” to begin with. ICTU policy would take those rights away from them.

I’ve been racking my brain trying to think of a parallel to this extraordinary situation, and I’m honestly stymied. Even considering the obvious context – disapproval of prostitution as a matter of principle – I can’t think of another sector in which the “solution” would involve the wholesale rejection of labour rights for those involved. I cut my political teeth in anti-war and anti-nuclear campaigning, and I don’t recall anything remotely comparable to this. We may have wanted to decommission the bases and power plants but we never said labour law shouldn’t apply to people working at them.

Nor can ICTU’s position be justified on the basis that sex work isn’t really a choice. The term “work” may be deemed inappropriate for actual forced labour, the labour of someone who is literally enslaved – but ICTU, like all but the most fanatical fringes of the anti-sex work movement, don’t seem to think that most in the sex trade fall into this category. Instead, their submission refers to the “poverty, past history of abuse or limited life choices” that push people into prostitution. But ICTU don’t see it as “not work” when poverty and limited options push people into unappealing jobs outside the sex sector – and they would never dream of opposing legislation to give those workers labour rights.

In some respects, this betrayal isn’t really a surprise: the Irish trade union movement has a long history of selling out Irish workers, especially those at the margins. (They also have a history of an undemocratic, top-down style of leadership which seems to be reflected here as well: nobody I know in any of the ICTU-affiliated unions was asked for their opinion of this submission before it went in.) But summarily excluding a whole sector of the economy from their remit, and refusing to defend the labour rights of the (particularly vulnerable) people dependent on it? That’s a new low for them, and it’s a shocking one.

About Wendy Lyon

Fighting a lonely battle for evidence-based policy and the proper use of apostrophes.

8 responses »

  1. They are lying about union support. Unless a union has balloted its members, and the outcome of voting was in favour of TORL, then they cannot say they have the support of that union. It is just one more way in which they attempt to give more legitimacy to their agenda that it deserves.

  2. Pingback: Are Sex Workers Labor? - Lawyers, Guns & Money : Lawyers, Guns & Money

  3. Pingback: SOME LINKS I IMPLORE YOU TO READ. | A Glasgow Sex Worker

  4. I was drawn to this website when researching a leaflet I picked up at the Fete L’Humanite in Paris last September called “STRASS Syndicat du Travail Sexual”.
    I am a representative of an Irish non ICTU Union – the Independent Workers Union. While the subject has not been debated to any great degree in our Union, I am of the view that Sex workers, whether forced into being sex workers, for want of some other way of making a living, or sex workers who engage in such work for the purpose of making a living (without coercion), are workers and deserve to be protected through organisation the same as other workers.
    I worked one time in slaughter houses – not the most pleasant of jobs, but like my colleagues,it was our way of making a living and we were quite militant about protecting our rights as workers and improving our conditions.
    All workers when organised into trade Union structures can improve their conditions and I believe that this should be encouraged.
    Noel Murphy IWU.

    • Thanks for your comment Noel – and as an IWU member before I went back to full-time education, it doesn’t surprise me at all. If only the rest of the Irish trade union movement had your understanding of what the movement is for.

  5. As a man , i really really enjoy your site’s direct and logical opinions – non-judgemental , articulate and highly entertaining – keep up the great work !

  6. I find the idea of sex = work interesting. Particularly when blended with other work such as dancing/stripping. Sex is only a part of the work, so I don’t see why it cannot be blended with other non-sex work.

    I would like to hire a secretary/prostitute on contract. She will be required to provide the usual secretarial services and sex services to my staff. Is this not allowed under the sex=work idea, or are there other employment laws against that I need to worry about?

    Health & Safety legislation mentions employee dignity and welfare. Is sex regarded as undignified or damaging to employee welfare, or am I OK here?

    My friend works in an investment bank and says the stress levels can be quite high. Would it be permissible for the bank to employ an in-house female sex-worker to provide full service to staff as a means of stress relief? How would the bank ensure that her physical & mental welfare are not damaged? Should there be a limit on the number of services she is required to perform per day? What is that limit? How would the bank stop other employees bullying her or calling her rude names? Is her presence, and her use by male workers, an affront to other female workers dignity? Must the bank also employ a male sex-worker? Would the sex workers be allowed to discriminate against same-sex service request? How best could the bank remove the attendant social stigma of sex-work and integrate sex into the normal workplace? Would the sex workers be allowed to refuse requests and on what grounds?

    Maybe I misunderstood the concept of sex=work. Is the work of sex so different that it cannot be combined with other economic activities and simply accepted as a work task?

    It would be a wonderful world if sex services were freely given upon request, but I fear that in many cases it will still have to be paid for. Why should that pay not be given by a company rather than the employee, and be regarded as a legitimate company expense? What is to prevent all workers having sex written into their employment contracts, is there something inherently wrong with contractual sex?

    I think unions might disagree with the idea of sex becoming part of a “normal job”, I think they don’t really see it as “work”. They would probably insist that there be some demarcation rules, that sex requires special skills. I would disagree with the special skills idea since almost every adult on the planet is capable of providing a basic service.

  7. I always enjoy these posts-as a UK resident it is always interesting to look at an Irish perspective.

    I have made a small foray into the Irish sex work debate with a review of Monica O’Connors book “The sex Economy”-see the review on Amazon


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