COVID19 controls for sex work safety

Source: Ian Dyball, istockphoto

Thinking about the occupational health and safety (OHS) issues of sex work is fascinating and, to some, titillating. But work is work and the OHS issues are just as real in a room in a brothel as in any other workplace. The workplace hazards presented by COVID19 to the Australian sex industry have been identified and addressed in some excellent OHS advice from Scarlet Alliance.

Sex workers need to screen clients already for visible signs of sexually transmitted diseases so personal questions about health and infections is already part of the customer relations. (There are also requirements for customers to shower or wash prior to services) The questions asked in relation to COVID19 are the same as asked elsewhere:

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Sex Work review includes many OHS matters

The Victorian Government has announced a review of the regulations pertaining to sex work. It will include several areas related to occupational health and safety (OHS):

  • Workplace safety including health and safety issues and stigma and discrimination against sex workers
  • Regulatory requirements for operators of commercial sex work businesses
  • And the safety and wellbeing of sex workers, including the experience of violence that arises in the course of sex work and as a consequence of it, and worker advocacy for safety and wellbeing

Consumer Affairs has carriage of the Sex Work laws but the breadth of the review would have been better served if the announcement had been a joint one with the Minister for Workplace Safety and Minister for Health.

This review should offer a real challenge to Victoria’s OHS laws, the OHS profession, consultants, advocates and critics.

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The absurdity of Work

In early July 2019, my son and I braved a cold Melbourne Friday night to see our very first improvisational comedy show. The catalyst was a show called “F**k this, I Quit“, produced by the Improv Conspiracy, and which is based on the work experiences of the audience there on the night. I was one of around fifteen in the audience, in a room that only holds forty people, and so occupational health and safety (OHS) became a featured theme that night. I, and OHS, was roasted and it was definitely the funniest night of my professional life.

Several audience members were asked about their work experiences. I mentioned that I consulted in OHS, had provided advice to some of Victoria’s licenced brothels, had an uncomfortable conversation one time about discussing nipples while at work and that I thought the most dangerous workplace hazard was electricity as it was invisible and deadly.

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A narrow view on sex work safety

Dr Caroline Norma had an opinion piece published in The Age newspaper on October 24 2018 that fails to acknowledge the occupational health and safety (OHS) duties of Victorian businesses operating sexual services.  SafetyAtWorkBlog has looked closely at OHS in this industry sector before and has previously communicated with Dr Norma on sex work safety.  Dr Norma’s current article illustrates a common perspective on workplace safety and health issues where one set of legislation dominates the public policy conversation rather than the multidisciplinary approach.

It is necessary to clarify Dr Norma’s opening statement:

“The Victorian Labor Party will consider fully deregulating the state’s sex industry if re-elected to office in November.”

According to the 2018 Platform of the Victorian Australian Labor Party (ALP), in the context of Human Rights and Equal Opportunity, the ALP will:

“recommend that the Victorian Law Reform Commission consider decriminalisation of all sex work in Victoria as per other systems recognised internationally by human rights organisations.” (page 87)

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Sex Work regulations review safety obligations

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2000 edition of SafetyATWORK magazine addressing some of the OHS issues in brothels

Consumer Affairs Victoria (CAV) is seeking public comment on some proposed revisions of the Sex Work Regulations.  Several revisions specifically address workplace safety issues but also indicate out-of-date thinking on worker safety and safety management.

Victoria licences its brothels and, as such, the occupational health and safety (OHS) laws apply as they do to all workplaces. However, the regulators of the sex industry seem to perceive OHS usually in terms of sexual health and hygiene even though statistics have shown that these issues are low risk hazards. This perception has lasted well over a decade as this 2000 article from National Safety magazine shows. Continue reading “Sex Work regulations review safety obligations”

Brothels continue to misunderstand the employee/contractor difference

For many years the brothel industry in Victoria has struggled with its occupational health and safety obligations, not because it does not understand them but that it denies OHS laws are relevant as many in the industry continue to believe that sex workers are not employees.  Some use a Tax Office ruling on employee status to support their argument against OHS.

A recent investigation by the Fair Work Ombudsman (FWO) seems to further illustrate the industry’s misunderstanding of employees.  According to an FWO media release nineteen brothels, over 70% of brothels investigated, underpaid clerical staff around $A65,000 but of more relevance to OHS is that

“Some businesses were found to have misclassified employees as independent contractors.”

This was a position put by many brothel owners and industry lobbyists when I was consulting and writing about the industry almost a decade ago.  For a long time OHS laws have extended beyond the employee/employer relationship to include those affected by the work being undertaken on the premises. The more modern Work Health and Safety laws go further by focussing on the work activity rather than the place of work.

As the OHS/WHS focus increases on psychosocial hazards – impairment, fatigue, stress etc – the adult entertainment industry has particular challenges; challenges that could be seen as threats or opportunities but certainly challenges that will not go away.  It is very positive that the industry groups have agreed to support a specific website for the sex industry but now they need to start working seriously on complying with their OHS/WHS obligations through collaboration, consultation and innovation, instead of denial.

Kevin Jones

More on this industry and this topic can be found in an earlier SafetyAtWorkBlog article.