Inside Labour: Do prostitutes need legal recognition?

2014-08-20 06:45

All people who sell their labour to survive are workers. And all workers are, to one or other degree, exploited because they are paid less than the final value of the work they do. In 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 about entertainers? Musicians, singers, comedians and others certainly do work, having spent years honing their skills. They are paid vastly varying rates by audiences that comprise 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 these people have in common is that they sell their labour to survive and that, in the final analysis, is what defines a worker.

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

But there are other unions that disagree with this broad approach. And their area of disagreement centres around prostitution.

Are workers who sell their labour to gratify the carnal desires of clients 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 roles and rights of what is generally referred to as the world’s oldest profession.

These arguments are now back on the global agenda as the economic crisis bites deeper.

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 SA 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 stance of decriminalisation with the ANC Women’s League and other groups such as the Commission for Gender Equality. Opposing them remains a range of individuals and organisations, including most of the churches.

But now the issue has started to re-emerge strongly?– not only in South Africa during Women’s Month. A combination of the economic crisis and the reach and spread of the internet has seen an apparent increase in the number of prostitutes and also in the manner of advertising and making contact with them.

There now even exists an app in Europe that enables cellphone 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 multibillion-dollar, and still largely illegal, activity.

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

Now there is a newer entrant in the debate: Embrace Dignity, a nongovernmental organisation headed by former parliamentarian Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge.

Embrace Dignity 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. In a seminar in Cape Town next week, Embrace Dignity plans to put forward the arguments for its “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 reduce the unemployment numbers while bringing a very lucrative business into the tax net.

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