WorkSafe starts work on sex work safety

The food delivery gig workers are the primary focus of the gig work and safety debates in Australia. The Transport Workers Union (TWU) is making good progress with one of the gig companies, DoorDash, on wages, conditions and OHS, but this progress remains limited. The focus on food delivery is also a comfortable category for industrial relations discussions. This is less the case when one looks at the sex work sector, recently decriminalised in Victoria and a type of gig work that has existed for far longer with far less legitimate attention. WorkSafe Victoria and the Department of Health recently ran a discussion roundtable with sex work industry stakeholders.

The sex work industry has operated in Victoria and elsewhere in an often illegal fashion, with substantial social and institutional stigma and without a trade union or other advocates for industrial relations. It has been regulated through health, consumer and planning laws.

Some sex work advocacy and support groups have attempted to address the OHS aspects of sex work, primarily in brothels. A draft best practice guide was written and shopped around to OHS regulators for many years with no takers. That guide remains relevant, but States are likely to produce their own. Before the Sydney Olympics, New South Wales made health and safety guidelines for sex services premises. (My SafetyAtWork magazine from 2000 on sex work safety remains available online) This guideline legitimised OHS in NSW brothels but failed to have the issue taken seriously in other jurisdictions. The importance of OHS could not pierce the dominance of health fears and stigma.

The decriminalisation of sex work in Victoria has set that state’s OHS regulator, WorkSafe, on a path of industry support. There are many questions about this strategy. Recently it held a roundtable to discuss the way forward on OHS in sex work. That meeting’s aims were to examine:

– initiatives to support the decriminalisation of sex work in Victoria
– opportunities to improve sex worker health and wellbeing
– how your organisation can support existing initiatives and the ongoing health and wellbeing of Victorian sex workers in a decriminalised environment
-stakeholders needs and roles in a decriminalised environment.

Victorian Ministers have stated that sex work needs to be considered as if it was an industry like any other. OHS has a tripartite consultative structure of government, business and workers. The latter two are usually industry associations and trade unions. These categories do not necessarily apply to sex work. There are plenty of sex work advocates with several associations, such as Scarlet Alliance, Vixen Collective, RhED, and others, which do not represent either industry or workers as traditional determined. Sex work has not evolved through the established industrial relations (IR) structures and, as such, OHS discussions in this industry almost need to start from scratch. The traditional IR assumptions and processes may not apply without a transition education strategy.

But should the sex work industry transition to fit with the traditional consultative structures on which Worksafe and other institutions depend? Maybe WorkSafe needs to seriously consider a new consultative mechanism that applies to an industry almost entirely populated by the self-employed.

There is no list publicly available of which stakeholders have been invited to the WorkSafe and Health Department discussions. SafetyAtWorkBlog has been told that the EROS Foundation and William Albon of the Australian Adult Entertainment Industry Inc (an organisation with no online presence other than submissions to government inquiries) were invited, and some sex work advocacy groups mentioned above. How these stakeholders have been identified is unclear, but many have been active in sex work for many years, many with very different approaches to sex worker safety. For instance, William Albon has denied that brothel owners have OHS obligations to sex workers for many years because the Australian Taxation Office decided sex workers were not employees. Repeated clarifications to Albon that OHS is determined by the OHS legislation and not tax law had little effect.

The May 6 2022, roundtable had presentations on the following issues:

  • The role of the Department of Health and the Public Health Response
  • The role of WorkSafe
  • Introduction to Vixen
  • Understanding the Health and Social Wellbeing Needs of Sex Workers in Victoria

The WorkSafe presentation was by Barbara Hill, who has been with WorkSafe Victoria since 2016. Her presentation describes her as the Head of Prevention, Strategy and Planning in the Health and Safety Business Unit. She identifies four strategic processes through to the end of 2023. WorkSafe is active in the first two at the moment:

  • Connecting with other government regulators
  • Engagement with the industry
  • Development of targeted information and guidance
  • Update Advisory and Inspectors on changes

The methods for supporting the “sex industry” (they may need to tidy up their terminology) include

  • Online Guidance and Information
  • Advisory service online or phone
  • Inspectorate
  • Industry engagement

Treating sex work like any other industry will require changes to how institutions support business owners. For instance, a phone-based advisory service has been an important service for traditional businesses. Many sex work businesses do not operate within the “7.30am to 6.30pm Monday to Friday” window of WorkSafe’s phone advisory service, and it is unclear whether sex workers will be willing to seek online in the middle of the night unless a quick informative and targeted response can be provided.

An alternative strategy may be to build on the existing outreach services offered by many sex work support groups. At some point, these discussions will involve government/WorkSafe funding if it has not occurred already. WorkSafe has been burnt in the past by offering grants to community groups and now has a strict grants process which is onerous for established OHS support groups. (The Department of Health may be in a more knowledgeable position on this) Some sex work support groups may not be able to meet WorkSafe performance targets and accountability criteria. Also, WorkSafe may need to learn how to consult and negotiate with a community sector with which it has had little connection, and that does not always play the same “rules” as trade unions.

Dealing with the sex work industry in Victoria could parallel some of the discussions on gig work structures, as sex work can be as precarious as delivering food via a motorcycle. Both are dominated by independent contractors, self-employed, sole traders and other combinations of work and workers. But the sex work industry has a very different consultative network than government agencies have traditionally used. In many ways, WorkSafe Victoria’s negotiations with this industry need to start from a blank slate. For decades brothel owners have been told they have no OHS duties to the sex workers who work on their premises and rent their rooms. WorkSafe needs to counter this misrepresentation of OHS to progress in this sector.

Although there are parallels with gig workers, there is also a similarity with farmers in that sex workers have a strong belief in their own independence, sometimes born from years of willful blindness from governments and from the need to be in control of their own destiny, as much as the social and institutional stigma allowed. WorkSafe has always struggled with farm safety. A similar experience is likely with sex work if it does not gain acceptance by the sex work industry groups and sex workers themselves well before the 2023 deadline.

WorkSafe Victoria has been contacted for additional information on consultation.

Kevin Jones

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