CAP International CSW66 parallel event, Friday 18 March 2022


The concept of “sex work” is incompatible with decent work. Decent work is not a description of work – good jobs vs. bad jobs, decent vs. indecent. It is a term intended to capture a broad range of comprehensive and far-reaching measures needed to ensure that workers exercise their collective and individual human rights. It refers to the preconditions for workers’ human rights to be fully realized. It is not about money (wages, income), but about the fulfillment of workers’ aspirations.

According to the ILO: “… decent work sums up the aspirations of people in their working lives. It involves opportunities for work that is productive and delivers a fair income, security in the workplace and social protection for families, better prospects for personal development and social integration, freedom for people to express their concerns, organize and participate in the decisions that affect their lives and equality of opportunity and treatment for all women and men.”

With these preconditions all work – regardless of how dangerous, difficult, or underpaid – can become decent work. “Sex work” – the selling of women for sexual use and exploitation – cannot. The preconditions for “sex work” are poverty, debt, a lack of social protection, insecurity, marginalization, displacement by conflict and war, and trafficking. This is what forces women into prostitution. It is compulsion, not choice.

“Sex work” cannot become decent work because the so-called “sex industry” needs the economic, social and physical vulnerability of women and girls. As a “business” generating profit it must perpetuate this vulnerability to expand its resources. Bringing an end to the economic, social and physical vulnerability of women and girls – which is integral to the very meaning of decent work – would bring an end to the “sex industry” itself.

To argue that prostitution is work is to argue that it is comparable to any other form of waged work: selling your labour-power in exchange for a wage. This mental and physical labour-power (and all forms of work are a combination of both), produces a product or service. Yet in “sex work” what is sold is not a woman’s mental and physical labour-power, but herself. She is the commodity. She is the product that is consumed. This precludes all the preconditions for decent work. Because it is not work.

Prostitution is an industry because it is allowed or encouraged to operate, generating massive economic wealth – criminal profits. But the exploitation of women in this industry to create that profit is not employment.  Women are not employed to provide a service (selling their labour-power for a wage), they are the product. It is therefore not employment, but the enslavement of women and girls, reinforced by their patriarchal treatment as commodities, as property. It is impossible to ensure access to the rights so integral to decent work because goods – commodities, products – do not have rights. This underpins the business logic of this criminal enterprise.

The notion of prostitution as “sex work” is contingent on the claim that she has chosen this employment. It is her choice. This ignores all the force and compulsion we referred to earlier. The deliberate and systematic exploitation of the economic, social and physical vulnerability of women and girls due to poverty, debt and displacement, produces force. Not choice.

In our work on modern slavery in the fisheries industry we have rescued fishers from trafficking and forced labour. I have not once heard any government, company, union or NGO suggest that he was on that boat by choice. They recognize that for reasons of poverty, debt and displacement he was on that boat – through no choice of his own – and subjected to horrendous and degrading treatment. Why do these same organizations suggest that women exploited in prostitution made a choice? And what happened to our outrage at horrendous and degrading treatment?

The only way in which we could possibly consider this a choice is if all the preconditions of force and compulsion are eliminated. What does that mean? It means that we first eliminate poverty, debt, displacement, trafficking, forced labor, and the vulnerability of women and girls that leads to trafficking and forced labor. There must be social protection for all, health for all, freedom from debt. We must establish the comprehensive social protection that the UN General Secretary called for in September last year and eradicate poverty. We must create jobs, guarantee a living wage, and ensure that everyone has access to the universal human right to housing, education, food and nutrition as guaranteed in the UN Declaration on Human Rights. Only then is it possible to argue that choices are being made.

Yet we are so far from this condition. Instead, we face increasing poverty, debt and displacement in the next decade. This means the increased vulnerability of millions of women and girls. It means increased exploitation of women and girls in prostitution.

As the global tourism gradually recovers with the promise to “build back better”, governments, resort owners and tourism industry operators will once again encourage and promote prostitution as a tourist attraction – as entertainment. There is no doubt that sex tourism will be a driver of foreign exchange earnings and business recovery in many countries. The women and girls exploited in this sex tourism will remain poor because the industry needs them to be poor; it needs them to be perpetually vulnerable.

Article 23 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights refers to the right to earn an income that ensures “an existence worthy of human dignity.” What happens when earning that income forcibly rips away your dignity and – by treating you as a product, as property – tries to take away your humanity too? Survivors have courageously struggled to recover their human dignity by escaping trafficking and prostitution and helping others to do so. Calling prostitution “sex work” denigrates that courageous struggle and simply casts doubt on our own humanity and human dignity.

Dr Muhammad Hidayat Greenfield, IUF Asia/Pacific Regional Secretary