UNISON Conference: debating the "Swedish model"

Submitted by Matthew on 24 June, 2010 - 10:11 Author: Jade Baker

Delegates at Unison conference earlier this month voted in favour of the “Swedish model” of criminalising those who purchase sex, and in effect, to put the safety of sex workers in further jeopardy.

Typically, debate on the subject was shut down at the conference, leaving the case against the “Swedish model” under-represented. However, a hunger to grapple with the arguments “for and against” was played out in an encouraging and well attended fringe meeting on the issue, sponsored jointly by the Labour Representation Committee and the AWL, before the vote on the motion.

Over fifty union members attended and heard from Thierry Schaffauser from the International Union of Sex Workers/ GMB sex workers’ branch.

The meeting heard a mix of opinions from the floor and teased out many intricate issues like how the country’s racist and punitive border regulations pave the way for sex trafficking to occur. A general consensus was reached that passing the motion would not protect voluntary or forced sex workers, and would push the industry further underground making the appearance of explotative third party agents, like pimps, a regularity.

The motion (117) which was proposed by “Unison Women”, supposedly representing 1,000,000 members, follows the retrogressive policy which took effect in April this year under the Police and Crime Act and which now deems any purchase of sex from a “vulnerable” person an arrestable offence.

This law makes the vetting of clients increasingly difficult for sex workers on the street with time restraints forcing them to dive into clients’ cars in fear of being caught by the police. It not only makes the life of a sex worker more precarious and dangerous, forcing them to carry out their work covertly, but also takes what power or control they had, over choosing clients at least, away.

This idea was even confirmed by a police support worker, who despite this view, was still puzzlingly unsure of how to vote on the motion! “Confusion” on the issue seems to be endemic. Maybe it’s down to the decades of damning stigma attached to sex workers and those who use their services.

Criminalisng clients in this manner is only going to exacerbate the “moral stigma” and in turn add to the vicious cycle which sees sex workers represented in a derogatory way throughout society.

Thierry, from the GMB’s sex worker branch, highlighted how in France, even though it is prohibited by law to advertise sexual services, it happens anyway. Capitalism reaps the benefits of this by raking in the extra money sex workers spend on constantly uploading or printing new advertisments.

In times of economic crisis, women will be the first group targeted and will find themselves metaphorically and literally thrown down to the curb.

Sex work is going to become a convenient source of income for many women who find themselves jobless. Instead of criminalisng the industry even further, we should be looking to provide sex workers with much more support, to make other economic choices if they want, and provide them with the freedom to orgainse around their work and the wider conditions of their lives as they see fit.

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