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Migrant Sex Workers – NZPC Interview

Migrant Sex Workers in New Zealand

Migrant Sex Workers in New Zealand…Well, I (Sharon) had questions, as did many of you… I knew this as you were contacting me and I was lost for words. To get some answers I thought I’d visit the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective (NZPC). Catherine Healy at the NZPC in Wellington was only too happy to oblige.

The main topic of conversation was migrant sex workers, their place in the Prostitutes Reform Act 2003 (PRA), Immigration, the vision for NZPC and the future of migrant sex workers.

The most obvious difference regarding migrant workers wanting to come to New Zealand to work in the sex industry is that there is a section in the PRA that excludes them from being able to do so. Any other industry throughout New Zealand, as far as I’m aware, there are no such exclusions.

The view of the NZPC is that this is discrimination towards the sex industry. This section was a last-minute addition to the PRA to help it edge through Parliament. NZPC was refused discussions on this point by the then Immigration Minister, it has been a bone of contention ever since.

It was a bit of a question and answer interview with wonderful tangents that brought in other aspects of sex work and views from others who are involved with the NZPC, the wonderful Calum and Ahi helped to add knowledgeable content. I’ll work through the questions below… happy reading.

NZPC celebrating their 30th birthday. A crowd of persons wearing red, hold up red umbrellas and smile at the camera.

Q. Referring to the PRA, what does the current Act state regarding migrant Sex workers?


A. What the act states in the view of the NZPC are sections that are very offensive, very stigmatising, and hostile towards migrant sex workers, and operators of brothels. It says that if you have the intention of coming to New Zealand to be a sex worker you can’t. This is not stated about any other occupational group which is why we object so strongly to it, it singles out sex workers and operators of brothels.

We accept that their needs to be immigration policies and we respect that, however, we don’t respect legalisation that stigmatises and discriminates so blatantly against an occupational group, it’s appalling.


Q. The section pertaining to migrant sex workers was added in at the last moment, wasn’t it?


A. The then Immigration Minister wanted to add in this section as a protection against trafficking. All of us are opposed to trafficking as it’s about coercion, deception, tricking people, and taking advantage of them. She was like ‘if we say you cannot come to New Zealand with the intention of being a sex worker that will resolve the trafficking issue’.

An attempt was made by the NZPC to discuss this further but she was not open to discussion on the matter, the NZPC didn’t support that as an initiative but we couldn’t fight it explicitly either as the third reading was very finely balanced. The law itself went through with quite a few things that we were uncomfortable with but had to suck it up really.


New Zealand and Australians have a visa friendly agreement, we don’t need work visas to work in each other’s countries. So the PRA doesn’t affect Australian citizens it only affects people who need a work visa, so it deliberately targets them.

Most New Zealanders can work in other countries if we have that friendly relationship with them. People from a lot of places like Uruguay, for example, can come here and work for two years subject to the requirements of particular industries. I’m not knowledgeable enough as to how that works to comment with authority on that, but at different times people come through and they fruit pick because there is a shortage. I guess there is an industry measure, to tell if an industry requires more people.

Here is the link if you wish to read more of the Prostitutes Reform Act 2003


Q. Why do you think some New Zealand sex workers are concerned about the migrant sex workers?


A. Oh, they are totally concerned. As you know there is a client base, it is limited, and it’s competitive. It’s within their rights to be concerned about whether the client base is going to come to them, in the sense that they are a New Zealander, they can work here, and they are supported by the law.


They might have a secondary concern that migrant sex workers may be working in poor conditions. Perhaps they might have humanitarian concerns where they are concerned about them being exploited and not supported by the law, I’d like to think they had some of those concerns. Another worry may also be that they have concerns in relation to perceptions about issues like safe sex, their perception or misperception might be that they are not practising safe sex.


Q. Are migrant sex workers stealing work from New Zealanders?


A. It is a very valid concern for anyone in the workforce, I guess in any country, and it’s not unique to sex work. What stinks about it is, that our concern relates to, discrimination that is explicit and hostile towards sex workers, so explicit, you know, we can’t accept that. We understand how people feel, of course, you know in any occupational group you can’t have unlimited migration, a country can’t sustain that. So clearly you have migration balancing act going on, in all occupational groups, all the time.

As an organisation the NZPC is to look at legislation that stigmatises, and discriminates, we challenge it and asks what sits beneath it. (Ahi) So, we would say that the same sort of checks that are in place across all industries should also apply to sex workers and migrant sex workers. Sex workers shouldn’t have a special piece of legislation that states that you can’t come because you are a sex worker. This way the industry will be regulated by all the same sort of policies that relate to all the other industries rather than singling out sex workers.

You have to stop and think about New Zealand sex workers when the situation is reversed and when they are themselves working in other countries.


Q. What about the concern that migrant sex workers are not paying tax?


A calculator and pen posed on top of a graph.A. Seriously? What I think people are livid about is that they are not getting a share of the clients, if you really peel off some of these…seriously. Hypothetically speaking as an operator of a brothel do I care if migrant sex workers are not paying tax…no, I probably don’t. I probably care a lot about them getting my share of the clients when I’m playing nicely and doing all the responsible things. I mean, I think it’s important that people pay tax because you wouldn’t have organisations like this (NZPC) which is contracted to the Ministry of Health.

The NZPC is charged to provide a raft of different services that are free to sex workers and that is sustained by the tax dollar. I commend the taxpayer, but how do they know, I mean really know, that they aren’t paying tax. (Jordan) How many Kiwi’s don’t pay tax? (Catherine) Yeah, I don’t know but it’s such an assumption people make.

It’s possibly true that the majority of those in the sex industry are not declaring income but I think most operators of brothels are, you know that’s for sure. They have a high level of visibility, where independent sex workers are moving without that same visibility.


Q. What are the reasons behind why people don’t declare their tax?

A. Most people don’t see their time in sex work as that long and they worry about declaring their name against sex work, they worry about the stigma. People come through the NZPC and say that they want to pay tax. That’s where we offer support, talk to them about how they can do that, and offer support with the forms helping them fill them out and explain how to do the whole tax thing.

(Ahi) They are often worried about signing their name up to pay tax. I think they think they are going to have to write down ‘I am a sex worker’, so it is quite a big relief when they realise they don’t have to.

(Catherine) I think it is also the physical thing, like we facilitate people and assist them to pay tax, showing them how to pay tax, how to figure out how to track earnings etc. Some people utilize an accountant but others may be a bit intimidated by an official position like that, they are happy in a smaller community setting.

I think almost without exception most sex workers say that they want to pay tax as they don’t want to be against the law.

If you would like to learn more about paying tax in New Zealand please follow this link to the IRD website.


Q. What do you think needs to be created or brought in line to assist the NZPC to help it to reach its goals or to create avenues to further industry knowledge in the community?


A. Just looking very carefully at things, I don’t really like dumbing things down but just to know that every sex worker, every time, everywhere is always going to be in control of every situation.

If you look at issues that are outstanding in any workplace, regardless if it’s in sex work or not, you would know that people have issues related to bullying and that is certainly something that we have in sex work.

Our dreams, I guess, are in line with any other complementary workplace, that we would want sex workers to be in charge, managing, and have lots of options. We have worked with the decimalization of the big things like brothel keeping, living off the earnings, procuring and soliciting, that is not the end, it is the start of a framework where sex workers can realise their rights.

I am very aware and the NZPC are very aware as to how things play out for different sex workers are uneven. Some people are experiencing discrimination, like for example in Upper Hutt in Wellington there is a bylaw that is very hostile. In Upper Hutt as an independent sex worker you cannot work from home and yet in Lower Hutt you can.


Q. The three regimes for sex work. What’s the difference?


  • There is the criminalised regime, where the sex worker, the client or both can be criminalised.
  • The legalised situation, this is where you ring-fence sex workers, these are good sex workers, these others are bad. The good sex workers, however, we will require medical checks every so often… week, month etc, and we will require them to do this, and this and this. It makes it hard for sex workers to operate safely because they must meet all these requirements, registrations, restrictions on travel, health checks etc.
  • Decriminalisation, like in New Zealand, where the models that criminalised or treated them as criminals are taken away and the same law that is applied to everything else is applied to sex work. They have the same employment laws, the same criminal laws everything applies to them as it does to any person in any occupation. So, no special rules that apply to just sex workers.


Q. What about an inspectorate, a regulatory body?


A. It has been spoken about for a long time where people want a tier of inspection. They want inspectors to go around and check up on them and I don’t understand this, we have had this before, it was intrusive, deeply offensive, and it impacted on our lives. Suggesting that this is a solution to stop malpractices in terms of labour is dangerous, it is a slippery slope, so be careful what you ask for.

(Calum) When I was visiting Austria, sex workers have to carry a card with them, with their registration details. They can be stopped anywhere at any time and the police can demand to see their card, even when they are at home they can come around and ask to see their card. There are all these things that go on in a legalised situation.

In New Zealand, we have Work Safe, where if you have a problem you can give Work Safe a ring and find out what your rights are. Typically people ring here (NZPC) and say ‘I have a problem’ then we can explore options with them and help facilitate to resolve those issues.

But hypothetically speaking…

But hypothetically, if there was to be an inspectorate, most people would say it shouldn’t be the police, then I say to them who should it be, what power should they have, how would they have that power, what if you didn’t like them, and why wouldn’t that happen. You will have this one little powerful unit that goes around with all this real and imagined powers that can step on the rights of sex workers, we know it happens as we have seen it in those legalised models.

I know that when people talk about this sort of situation they mean well, they mean to fix whatever it is that they think needs fixing, and a lot of situations need fixing. It’s not good enough, for example, to have bullying in brothels, it shouldn’t be there, an inspectorate isn’t going to pick that up. It is going to walk right through those brothels, “everything looks clean and tidy, let’s look at your contracts – Yes, they look fine”, they are not going to pick it up. What picks up those malpractices is those individuals who feel able to speak up.

We have great regulations, great labour law, we just have to work it and get confident working it.

Ahi, what have you been hearing about this topic?

One of the reasons that some people say that they think it would be a good idea is because then sex workers can go to one place and say ‘I have this problem’, that one person can then say ‘oh what you need is the police’, or ‘what you need is the labour department’. The interesting thing is that most sex workers come to us (NZPC), they come here and say they have a problem and then we can talk with them about the different ways they can deal with it, and that we can support them through that.

I think that sometimes people if they don’t know about NZPC or what we already do, they might think there needs to be one centralized way for people to just contact all of these agencies and say this is my problem. I think they imagine that those agencies will know who is the appropriate person is to talk to or what is the appropriate route to take, but they don’t know exactly what each other does, you will be bounced around from place to place with not necessarily receiving an answer.

(Catherine) A lot of these battles have been fought and thought through by sex worker communities, it’s sad if sex workers want to put themselves back into a controlled sort of setting. We have great regulations, great labour law, we just have to work it and get confident working it.


Q. Are people using the law and the PRA to help their workplace situations?

A. We know that individuals are speaking up about their workplace situations. There is a consequence for those individuals who have a complaint laid against them, they usually lose their independent contract at that place or it is negotiated. Operators have been in this room, who have been some of the biggest bullies and they have settled to pay back the money as they don’t want to be taken through the mediation services.

Yes it takes effort and it takes courage, but I think if you are looking at an inspectorate be careful as you could end up with someone who, on the one hand, has no power to fix anything. This is because they can’t wear the judge’s hat of criminal law, they can’t wear the labour hat of employment law, and they can’t wear the medical hat of medical law. You would never get that one person with all of that, so all they would be is a busy bureaucratic role with no teeth to fix anything except to be annoying and intrusive.

Why can’t sex workers deal directly with the appropriate bodies, well they do, and they are jolly well good at it. I love the fact that sex workers stand up and say f*&k Off and I’m going to ring the police.


Q. What happens if people find a migrant sex worker and they contact immigration?


A. I was really sad to see there was an initiative to dob people into their embassies. They are economic migrants and people who travel the world. You have to stop and think about New Zealand sex workers when the situation is reversed and when they are themselves working in other countries, there are sex workers from New Zealand who are working in the States for example who would be deported.

We know from the migrant sex workers point of view what happens. Most recently a sex worker had 6 immigration officers turn up at the brothel in which she was working, she was completing her degree and she only had a few months to go and she was deported. So, her study was blown off, she goes back to a developing country where her parents had scraped together a lot of money for their adult daughter to get a degree.

It goes on her Visa that she has been deported and this information has been made public through the New Zealand Legal Information Institute (NZLII) and if she is to appeal, her name and the reason for deportation will be recorded publically through the court’s database.



Q. What do you think the accountability should be for agencies, do you think agencies and brothels have a responsibility to make sure that sex workers are legally allowed to work?


A. We would urge every agency and brothel to use all faculties really, as sometimes the law can be disconnected from a moral, humanitarian and ethical response, we would urge everyone to look at the law and understand what it is about.

We know with sex work there has been a long history of discrimination, stigma, and criminalization, and a lot of people around the world are working in that framework. The NZPC are not wanting migrant sex workers to be at risk of being vulnerable to the law, we want them to know what the law is and to come to their own decision. We say to them, you realise that this is the law in New Zealand if you are a migrant sex worker and you elect to work, or you are an operator of a brothel and you are electing to hire migrant sex workers just be very aware the law is this.

So, we take a position where we advise people quite firmly about the law and what it says. But we respect how people interpret the law because we must look at the law and decide as well about its lack of humanity on this issue.


Who to contact


For more questions regarding migrant sex workers, contact your nearest NZPC on the below details:


3/2 Canada Street, Central Business District, Auckland.
Phone: 09 366 6106

Unit 36a Historic Village on 17th Avenue, Tauranga
Phone: 07 571 0640

Palmerston North – Manawatu
Outreach number: 06 357 3150

Hawkes Bay
Outreach number: 06 835 1400

Waikato including Hamilton, Waikato, Taranaki, Taupo, Rotorua, Whakatane, and Gisborne
Outreach number: 07 839 5519

Wellington – National Branch
Level 4, 204 Willis Street, Te Aro, Wellington
Phone: 04 382 8791

157 Waltham Road, Sydenham, Christchurch
Phone: 03 365 2595

411 Princes Street, Dunedin
Phone: 03 477 2517

You can also visit their website www.nzpc.org.nz to get more details.


The logo for Work Safe New Zealand

Work Safe New Zealand

As mentioned above there are many avenues you can turn to to get help. Work Safe New Zealand is one of these places, they deal with the following:

  • Monitoring and enforcing compliance with work health and safety legislation
  • Providing guidance, advice, and information on work health and safety
  • Fostering a co-operative and consultative relationship between the people who have health and safety duties and the persons to whom they owe those duties and their representatives.
  • And much more.

The above information was taken from their website www.worksafe.govt.nz For more information please visit the Work Safe website, email them directly on info@worksafe.govt.nz or visit their contact page for multiple contact avenues depending upon the situation.

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