Do pros­ti­tutes need le­gal recog­ni­tion?

CityPress - - Business - Terry Bell busi­ness@ city­press. co. za

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 should the sale of sex be equated with poach­ing, theft and rob­bery? Should the prac­tice re­main crim­i­nal or should it be de­crim­i­nalised?

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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