Every employee has the right to a safe and healthy work environment. It was this statement and belief that pushed me to providing OHS advice to the legal brothel industry in Victoria. The industry is frowned upon by most but used by many, and yet the OHS support for the industry is far less than that provided for many other legal businesses.
Over the years sex trafficking, or slavery, has gained a lot of attention, more so, in my opinion, than other examples of illegal migration and worker exploitation. Articles in The Age newspaper today report on approaches to brothel owners and managers from people who have women for sale. Regardless of the industry in which this occurs, this practice is abhorrent and the full weight of the law should be focused on these slave traders.
But a point that is getting lost in the wilderness is that not all women working in brothels are illegal. Almost all choose to work there for the same reasons anyone works anywhere. Many academics, and Australia has some of the most rabid, see all sex work as exploitation, as slavery and degrading to women.
The question for safety professionals and advocates is whether the nature of the work discounts the workers’, and employers’, access to legitimate safety advice? Can the moral switch be flicked off, even for a short time, in order to provide workers in this industry with the same level of occupational health and safety as any other worker can rightfully demand? Does the switch need turning off?
The statement at the start of this blog, that is reflected in OHS legislation around the world, is not selective, it applies to all.
The legal brothel industry has a long way to go in achieving the levels of OHS compliance that other small businesses have already gained. The established hazards of manual handling, ergonomics, noise, etc are largely dealt with but consider those issues that have entered the occupational area over the last decade or so.
Ask yourselves how would the owner of a legal brothel, a business where (predominantly) women have sex with multiple partners over their shift, deal with these contemporary hazards:
- Drugs and alcohol
And then ask yourselves how the OHS profession and discipline would deal with these workplace issues?
- Sexually transmitted infections
- Sprains and strains
- Personal protective equipment
- Working in isolation
I judge the success of safety management systems in companies by the level of knowledge the most isolated worker has about safety in that workplace. I ask the teleworkers, the night-shift workers, the security guards, the cleaners, the maintenance staff… These employees, if a safety management system is working properly, should have the same level of safety knowledge, and the same level of access to OHS support, as those workers on day shift in a head office.
I also judge the safety profession and the regulators on the success of their safety initiatives, the level of their safety commitment, by looking at how OHS is accepted and implemented at those industries on the fringes of society, like the brothel industry. If the workers in these industries and the owners of these businesses are treated differently because of the nature of the work, we need to reassess our commitment to safety and the professional vows many of us took to ensure everyone has a safe and healthy work environment.
A March 2008 podcast on the issue of sex trafficking in Australia is available HERE