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Sex Work Decriminalisation Bill 2021

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Samantha Ratnam
Leader of the Victorian Greens
10 February 2022

 I am very pleased to rise to speak in support of the Sex Work Decriminalisation Bill 2021. This bill has been a long time coming, and it is a very welcome reform. Sex work is work and should be treated as such by our laws. The criminalisation of sex work has caused so much harm. It has reinforced social stigma and put sex workers at risk. The two-tiered licensing scheme in Victoria has had a similar impact, with the majority of sex workers working unlawfully. The decriminalisation of sex work is a recognition of the reality that sex work is a part of our society, that it is work and that sex workers, like all other workers, have the right to be protected.

I want to acknowledge all the people that have fought so hard and so long to see this day: all the sex workers and their allies who have petitioned, shared their stories, lobbied, written submissions, met with politicians, protested and had the courage and the conviction to stay the course for decriminalisation and the safety and wellbeing of sex workers. In particular I want to acknowledge the work of Vixen, Scarlet Alliance and the other organisations that have advocated over so many years for decriminalisation. Peer-based organisations like Vixen and Scarlet Alliance are vital. The reality is that sex workers are best placed to know how best to keep safe, how best to stay healthy and the ins and outs of their industry. We in this place should always make the effort to listen to those most affected by the laws we make here.

I further commend the government on granting Vixen funds to engage in vital health work with sex workers around Victoria. There is no question that peer-based organisations can provide effective outreach and support, particularly to more at-risk groups, and will be important in rolling out the reforms in this bill. I hope the funding can be secured on an ongoing basis. I also want to acknowledge the work of Ms Patten in shepherding this bill into existence through her work on the task force and also over her many years of advocacy.

Sex workers in this state have lived far too long with laws that single out their work from all other work and that put them at risk. The Greens have had a longstanding policy position of supporting the full decriminalisation of sex work. It is the right policy, the right thing to do, and I am proud to put our position on the record and into action by supporting this bill today.

Other speakers today have detailed the specific provisions of the legislation and its two-stage approach. It is a thoughtful and practical way to manage a significant reform like this. Overall this is a good piece of legislation that mostly does what it says it does: decriminalise sex work in Victoria—except for one glaring inconsistency. It is extremely disappointing that the bill continues the criminalisation of street-based sex work and that it does so in a way that makes the law confusing and inconsistent, singling out particular places and particular times when certain forms of sex work remain criminal acts. It is almost as though the government does not have the courage of its own convictions and is still being held back by some outdated moralistic views. It makes no sense in the logic of this important reform to keep in place barriers to services and support and continue to put at risk street-based sex workers and, even more than that, keep workers at the mercy of the police. I note Mr Meddick has circulated amendments to remove these offending provisions, and I will be supporting those amendments. Decriminalisation of sex work needs to be full decriminalisation of sex work.

Sex workers have also raised with us other concerns with the legislation that we are debating. The legislation as it is, while removing the need for sex workers to be registered, actually retains a register of sex workers as a historical document. This makes no sense and is deeply disrespectful and potentially harmful to sex workers past and present. I am pleased to hear the government has changed its mind and is now indicating an intention to destroy the register, but we would like to see this intention reflected in the bill.

Another area where sex work specific regulation is maintained in the legislation is with respect to advertising regulations. We see no reason why sex work should have specific regulations different from general advertising regulations. I understand the issue of sex work advertising regulations has been a real problem for sex workers and can inhibit their ability to frankly and safely negotiate services. I will be supporting amendments moved in the committee stage on these two issues as well as amendments to incorporate sex work specifically as a protected attribute in the Equal Opportunity Act 2010 and to provide a better definition of ‘sex work’.

There are a couple of other issues I also want to briefly touch on. I know there has been some disquiet in the local government sector concerning this bill and the interaction with local government and its regulatory roles and responsibilities. I appreciate the sector was given little time for consultation by the government on this important reform, but I really urge councils to respect the intent of these laws and engage in the transition process in good faith. I am confident that the local councils can get this right.

My Greens colleague in the other place, Dr Read, in his contribution on this bill spoke to the misplaced concerns regarding decriminalisation and public health. I too want to reiterate that all the evidence demonstrates that decriminalisation is key to better health outcomes for sex workers and the broader community and that voluntary health checks are more effective than mandatory health checks. The bill before us has got this right. Further to that, concerns around the influence of organised crime and sex work are best dealt with by decriminalisation. Decriminalisation empowers sex workers. It removes barriers for reporting crimes, including crimes of violence. I understand the government will move an amendment to push back the start date for the bill, given we are debating it now in 2022 instead of the end of last year. I feel the disappointment of those that have been waiting a long time for these reforms at this further delay. We will not oppose the amendment, but it is very unfortunate that it has come to this.

The unnecessary stigma around sex work continues to have very material consequences. During the COVID lockdowns sex workers struggled to access financial support available to other workers. I heard from sex workers who were down to their last dollars during that time. Sex workers themselves set up a fund to assist each other with financial support. Today is an important step towards ending that stigma and recognising and protecting the rights of sex workers to safe workplaces and to go about their lives free from discrimination. The bill is not perfect, and I look forward to the committee stage and supporting amendments to fix some of the issues in the legislation, but it is a lot overdue and a significant reform. I once again congratulate all those who have helped bring decriminalisation of sex work to Victoria and the recognition that sex work is work.

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Samantha Ratnam
Leader of the Victorian Greens
10 February 2022
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