NT Sex Workers Finally Have Decriminalisation: An Interview With SWOP NT’s Coordinator Leanne Melling

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SWOP Leanne Melling

Sex workers across the NT let out a collective cheer last week, as that territory’s Legislative Assembly passed the Sex Industry Bill 2019. After long-term campaigning from within the industry, sex work in the Northern Territory will now be decriminalised.

One of the major political supporters of the move, NT attorney general Natasha Fyles outlined that sex work should be treated like any other work. And her government is “looking at it from a worker safety perspective”, as well as “through a business framework”.

The sex worker rights groups at the forefront of the move are the Sex Worker Outreach Program (SWOP NT), the Sex Worker Reference Group (SWRG) and peak national industry body the Scarlet Alliance: Australian Sex Workers Association.

Sex work is work

These sex work organisations have praised the backing the industry received from territory unions, legal and health bodies, and medical associations, as they’ve all played a role in helping to abolish the licensing and registration regime that’s been operating since 1992, under the Prostitution Regulation Act (PRA).

Once in force the new laws will provide sex workers with rights, protections and legal recourse, which they’ve previously lacked. And by June 2020, those working in the industry will no longer suffer pervasive privacy invasion and they’ll be afforded the same rights as any other worker in the NT.

Third time lucky

The decriminalisation of sex work in the Territory makes it the third jurisdiction in the world – as Amnesty International puts it – to have stopped criminalising and penalising those who work within the industry, as well as upholding their human rights.

NSW was the first jurisdiction in the world to decriminalise the sex industry back in 1995. And the outcomes have been internationally lauded. While the entire nation of New Zealand was the second to remove the majority of its criminal restrictions back in 2003.

However, SWOP NT coordinator Leanne Melling stresses that the NZ model has been eroded and only truly applies to locals, as “migrant sex workers are regularly deported”. But, she posits the decriminalisation model in the NT is an opportunity that will only strengthen sex worker rights.

Globally endorsed best practice

The positive outcomes of decriminalisation for sex workers include increased health, well-being and empowerment, better working conditions, reduced risks of sexually transmitted infections and blood-borne viruses, along with an ability to seek law enforcement help without fear of reprisal.

UNAIDS has praised the NT government for making the change. It said it enhances safety for workers and their clients, as well as explicitly prohibiting the exploitation of sex workers, supporting their access to justice and outlawing any involvement of children.

A matter of time

However, while civil society and human rights bodies are lining up to endorse the decriminalisation of adult sex work, unfortunately, for sex workers in South Australia, the decriminalisation bill that was expected to pass last month was voted down a fortnight ago.

While meanwhile in Victoria, the Andrews government has just announced it’s launching an inquiry into decriminalising that state’s sex industry. Although, the Vixen Collective’s Jane Green has stressed that the reforms need to encompass all forms of adult sex work and venues.

Sydney Criminal Lawyers spoke to Leanne Melling about the benefits that will be forthcoming for sex workers in the Territory, the debilitating old regime that’s being given the boot, and why sex workers need to be added to NT discrimination laws.

Firstly, on 26 November, the Northern Territory Parliament passed the Sex Industry Bill. Leanne, as this sort of legislation faces a lot of resistance, what would you say got it over the line?

It was definitely a team effort. But, primarily it was NT sex workers-led engagement through the SWRG that’s been established since the early 2000s. The group is made up of past and current sex workers.

SWOP NT is a member of the Scarlet Alliance as are individual members and other member organisations across Australia, such as SWOP NSW, or Respect Inc in QLD, have collectively informed  evidenced-based policy to decriminalise sex work.

This has been advised by sex workers for sex worker -led guidance for lawmakers regarding reforms that ensure sex workers are provided with mechanisms for safety at work, equality to report injustice, and to repeal any laws that are criminalising us.

So, it’s the removal of criminal laws that impede us from being protected, and additionally, we need industrial law protection, just like other workers.

The decriminalisation of sex work is ratified in Australia’s National BBV and STI Strategies, and internationally, through UNAIDS, the World Health Organisation and Amnesty International.

Certainly, The Lancet, as well, has endorsed the decriminalisation of sex work. So, some of those national and international policies and endorsements are part of why these reforms have been able to come through.

We’ve lent quite heavily on the Scarlet Alliance for technical support, and other stakeholders, like Unions NT. That’s been essential to reforms. And we’ve had holistic NT stakeholder support.

So, apart from Unions NT, there’s the United Workers Union, the Australian Services Union from South Australia and the NT. They’ve supported motions over many years for sex workers, which have been put up by us for delegates to present at NT Labor conferences.

The Northern Territory’s Working Women’s Centre has been amazing. They’ve done a lot of work very early around the storage of sex workers’ private information with the police.  That advocacy actually forced the police integrity commission to look at how sex worker registration had been or is stored.

There’s been support from the NT Women’s Legal Services, the Law Society and Family Planning NT, which sex workers from SWOP NT and the SWRG deliver education models through to doctors and nurses about best practice engagement with sex workers for testing, treatment and non-discriminating services.

There’s the NT Anti-Discrimination Commission and the NT Department of the Attorney General and Justice, whose staff have been really great at explaining many issues to us that we needed to have a comprehensive understanding of. They have assisted us in helping our community navigate process required that has enabled SWOP NT and the SWRG to put in manysubmissions.

The Department of Health and the Department of the Territory Families, The NT Council of Social Services NTCOSS have also been really fantastic.

There’s also Darwin Community Legal Services support and that of the Sexual Health Blood-Borne Virus Unit and the Sexual Health Advisory Group in the Northern Territory, which comprises of lots of representatives from around the NT. They’ve also been really supportive in ensuring that sex workers can access services.

There’s the YWCA Australia and AFAO, which is the national body for all peaks for the peaks that together advocate as the leaders that support Australia’s policy response to HIV. The Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations that Scarlet Alliance is also a Peak member of and the NTAHC within the National AIDS Councils too, as the Northern Territory AIDS and Hepatitis Council.

There are so many other supporters of the decriminalisation of sex work in the NT. I can’t mention everyone, but we’ve all worked really hard together to ensure that we can have safety at work, and that means full decriminalisation.

A very important part of the process has been the NT ALP government, which has consistently been supportive of safety for sex workers.

Meetings with the Honourable Natasha Fyles, I’d like to particularly mention. The Minister has prioritised sex workers issues and listened to our concerns throughout the process of working towards fully decriminalising sex work in the NT.

Where sex workers have had the opportunity to share personal stories, with the Minister, of resistance against the very unworkable and draconian licensing model, which is the Prostitution Regulation Act.

We’ve provided solutions and recommendations for workers, who have had that lived experience of the harm of the very onerous and discriminatory licensing system.

With the Sex Worker Reference Group, SWOP NT has submitted recommendations throughout the two and a half years in response to the government’s discussion papers through the duration this government being in power.

I would like to highlight that we have also made recommendations to modernise the NT Anti-Discrimination, as well as for reforms for the sex work industry, to support the NT Sex Industry Bill, as well as towards the Family, Domestic and Sexual Violence Implementation and violence reduction strategies

Also, a number of us from the SWRG, presented evidence to the Legislative Assembly’s Economic Policy & Scrutiny Committee and as representatives of SWOP NT, the Scarlet Alliance, and alongside NTAHC and AFAO

There’s really just a great sense of solidarity here. Sandra Nelson in Katherine, the MLA there, has really supported and accompanied sex workers along this journey. And I can’t emphasis enough the support of the Northern Territory unions in working with us to assist us in being able to gain industrial rights.

Prior to the new bill being passed, the sex industry in the NT, as you’ve just mentioned, was governed by the Prostitution Regulation Act 1992.

What were some of the numerous issues with the system that legislation set up? And on the ground, what were some of the adverse impacts it was having?

I like that you’ve mentioned numerous, because there are numerous issues. But, we’ve certainly welcomed the passing of the bill to eradicate these draconian systems.

For example, I would like to point out the lifelong registration with the NT Commissioner of Police. People get quite shocked when they realise what the NT licensing system means for sex workers. And it’s onerous, because it has resulted in much noncompliance as it’s against human and workers’ rights.

Sex workers basically made sure there was direct action, by refusing to register in revolt to try and change the laws for equitable access to work, to force change without these detrimental impacts to sex workers privacy.

This action resulted in no NT escort agencies being able to comply with the Prostitution Regulation Act 1992. And that’s because sex workers wouldn’t register for life with police.

Also, that meant that agency operators couldn’t register either as part of their compliance, so the whole system broke down. Many operators and managers of these businesses’ have also struggled ethically with this licensing system, which clearly discriminates against sex workers human rights.

No other workers in this country are required to have registration in this way with police for life.

Sex workers are asked for details of whether they’ve worked five years prior, whether they’re intending to work within the next five years, whether they’re intending to stay in the industry, whether they’re going to work in other states and territories, what their eye colour is and original hair colour was, what their hair colour is now, what their nationality is, their skin colour, their height, parents’ personal information, place of birth, whether they have any tattoos, or had any removed… it just goes on and on.

So, you’ve definitely been dealing with an evasive and overreaching system there.

Yeah. And even worse than that is, where that information has gone. Just because sex workers have complied with the law, it’s resulted with many police breaches of privacy.

This information has been used against workers in courts of law. For example, child custody cases, this has included sex workers right to privacy and sharing of information being violated

A few years ago, all the names held on the register were accidentally sent to a legal representative of a past sex worker’s partners lawyer in another state to try and use against her in a child custody case.

Of course, the person who received it was quite alarmed about what they had received, thinking they were just going to get a confirmation that this person had been a sex worker previously.

So, this bill ensures that all of these registrations will be expunged, and then really importantly that the information will be expunged across other states and territories in Australia, or even abroad, where sex workers information has been sent.

It’s incredibly harmful, and it’s just because sex workers were complying with the regulations. It’s caused so much accumulated pain and harm to sex workers over the years. And this pain extends to people that have left that industry to work in other industries.

Another example is registration turned up 15 years after a sex worker ceased work in the NT. She’d applied for an Ochre Card to work with children, when they were first introduced in the Northern Territory. And her CEO in a NGO was informed that there was a flag against her name via a general police check.

And appallingly, with further investigation it was because she had legally complied with the NT Prostitution Regulations. Luckily, her continued employment was OK, with this disclosure because she had a good relationship with her employer, her registration should never of being an issue.

As well, private workers can’t work with anyone else. Are required to work out of hotels or to escort to client’s premises. So, if you’re a Private or Independent worker, who wants to work with another worker for safety reasons, or have other security, a cleaner or receptionist or a personal driver, then that’s not legal either.

So, compared to the way the industry has been operating over the last three decades, what sort of changes are to take place as the new regime comes into play? And how will the welfare of sex workers be improved?

The passing of the NT Sex Industry Bill 2019 allows full decriminalisation. So, it aligns sex work as work. And therefore, now existing laws and regulations are able to be put in place to protect sex workers, and enable the opening of pathways that other workers are afforded, to industrial rights protections and responsibilities under the law.

Sex workers will be able to work together. To have support with staff for administration, reception, security and as drivers. Sex workers will no longer be criminalised under the two-tiered licensing model. And sex workers will have greater choice in how and where to provide services.

Their work is now recognised as work, and therefore, sex workers will have added protections under Fair Work and Safe Work Australia.

So, there will be many benefits for sex workers. And also, with the lifting of all police powers, just like other industries.

Certainly, police can go into any workplace under the Planning Act, or even if there are industries where exploitation is happening, they have the power under the Modern Slavery Act to enter all workplaces as well.

But, more importantly, sex workers will have benefits for work, health and safety through regulations and guidelines. And to have the lifting of criminalisation means that sex workers won’t be as fearful of police engagement.

This will extend to reporting injustice for breaches of industrial protections or crimes against sex workers, workers will now be able to go to the police without any other repercussions. Because if someone is working in a criminalised environment, they’re unlikely to report to the police.

Down here in NSW, there was a lot of media around the attempt to decriminalise the sex industry in South Australia. It had the support of both the Premier and Attorney General, however the lower house rejected the bill.

Why do you think that state’s legislation failed to pass, yet the NT’s was successful?

The NT has a very different framework. It doesn’t have a lower and upper house in parliament. The NT has different demographics as well.

But, there are similarities. Sex workers are supported via peer organisations like the Sex Industry Network (SIN) in South Australia, and SWOP NT up here in the Territory, we have very strong support from stakeholders in both jurisdictions for full decriminalisation, the expungement of sex workers’ data that’s ratified through current discriminating laws. There is support for anti-discrimination protections and for a lack of laws that protect sex workers industrial rights in NT and SA.

Of course, SIN and the Scarlet Alliance would be better placed to answer your question. But, those similarities are important to highlight.

Sex worker organisations that are peer-based – run by sex workers for sex workers, like Scarlet Alliance and SIN– have been working for over 20 years in this environment to strive for rights as the NT has.

So, our policies and sex worker rights reforms have been based on years of work and a collective voice and work from around Australia as well.

Victoria has just launched an inquiry into decriminalising sex work, which is being led by Fiona Patten. That state already has a licensing scheme in place.

In your understanding, why is decriminalisation a preferred model to the legitimate licensing scheme that has been running in that state for close to three decades?

This is probably a question that the Vixen Collective and the Scarlet Alliance are better placed to answer.

But, this leadership needs to be informed from a collective voice from Victoria as well. So, for instance, SWOP NT directly refers sex workers only to the Vixen Collective for engagement in legal support and engagement in advocacy and law reform.

But, as mentioned before, a licensing system doesn’t work for sex workers. It treats sex workers in a very patronising way, like we have to be reined in, because we haven’t got agency.

And often we’ll hear people say, “You’re speaking out on behalf of sex workers and it’s alright for you, because you can do this. What about people who can’t?” That’s even if there’s seven of us representing different demographics and nationalities.

But, actually, there’s a lot of people who are behind representative voices. And one of the things that worked in the Northern Territory is there’s a very cohesive Labor Party in government that has very solid support for workers’ rights.

When there’s a system in place that’s predominately criminalised – because the two-tiered licensing system really creates an aspect of criminalisation – it’s really hard on sex workers when people are anti-sex work, as they’re often able to then say and advocate negatively that the laws don’t go far enough to discriminate against sex workers.

And that’s what we’re talking about. A two-tiered licensing system, it is discrimination, because other people who work don’t have that type of constraint. In the NT, you’ve got registration for life with police. And in Victoria, there are unique, problematic areas around licensing as well.

It’s fantastic that Victoria has the Attorney General, the Minister of Health and others and politicians listening to sex workers. So, let’s hope this reform for full decriminalisation goes through as well.

I know that Vixen has some very detailed statistical information on the harms and some of the problems with breaches around registration and the licensing model there.

Leanne, you’re the coordinator of SWOP NT, which is a peer-based health promotion service, supporting sex workers on the ground.

Can you elaborate a little more about what your organisation does? And also, why it’s important to have an organisation like SWOP being peer-run?

SWOP NT and the Sex Worker Reference Group comprise of past and current workers only. And that includes all volunteer work, representational and leadership work, policy work and submissions for NT sex workers. The program and group also includes fly-in, fly-out workers who participate in reference groups.

Sex workers won’t always tell others who aren’t sex workers about their work. Sex workers may only choose to tell another sex work only that they are or have worked as a sex worker. Criminalisation also has impacted the sex worker community and so, peer education is essential for sharing skills with each other, reducing isolation and enabling engagement at all levels.

SWOP enables sex workers to be a part of programming and to be mentors and educators with other sex workers.

Really, sex workers are the best educators, because if other people haven’t engaged in sex work, they can’t impart the knowledge about those circumstances at work to another for educational purposes, particularly for safety. Because as sex workers we are fantastic at setting really strong boundaries.

As peer educators we’re pretty well recognised instantly within our community, as we’re non-judgemental, supportive and have an understanding of the issues as workers who have lived experiences of sex work and the issues that are impacting us as workers. So, that’s an important part of it.

But, also we know about industry practices and cultures as peer educators, and we’re qualified to assist and advise other workers on all aspects of work.

We provide to health information, or access to health, legal referrals and industrial information.

Importantly we have a unique perspective as workers due to the weight of stigma and discrimination, cannot be replaced in experience by non-sex workers.

Our collective self-determination for rights-based reforms and respect as workers is certainly not able to be comprehended fully if you haven’t been involved in the industry as a worker, peer education is imperative for support.

Whether we’re working together for rights, access to health and justice services, or providing each other with skill sharing and or formal education, we’re able to strive when we’re connected to each other.

All workers need peer support in every industry. And for sex workers due to criminalising laws and the level of stigma and discrimination this is a really important approach to sex worker organising, and for workers engagement in services.

Also, I’d really like to highlight that the reference group that works with SWOP NT has been involved in roundtable, departmental and political meetings, collectively we have put in multiple recommendations and our position in many NT discussion papers.

The reference group will also definitely be involved in assisting with work in 2020 on the, health and safety guidelines for sex workers with the passing of this new bill. It’s very exciting times in the NT and for sex worker engagement in process, sex workers feel valued in the NT.

NT Sex workers have also made some great recommendations and provided a 35 page paper of case studies to contribute to the modernisation of the NT Anti-Discrimination Act.

We’ve recommended that sex work and sex workers be endorsed as attributes under the act. And we’d like protections in the modernisation of the Act against vilification as well.

And lastly, there does seem to be a concerted effort to roll out decriminalisation more widely. How do you see this all playing out from here?

Even before the passing of this bill, there were recommendations from sex workers and our allies that have been very carefully endorsed and put forth by internationally led policy from UNAIDS, WHO and Amnesty International.

The process of the bill, its development and passing has been a demonstration of best practice of stakeholders and government engaging with a traditionally marginalised community of workers. And that’s because of the example of active consultation with sex workers as the key stakeholders and the government and its Departments with broad NT stakeholders support

Our national association for sex workers, the Scarlet Alliance, and the reference group have been fantastic. And it’s also because we’ve been disciplined in submitting to many of the NT discussion papers over the years. Also, it’s stakeholder engagement and with the support of sex workers that are united as advocates for full decrim as well.

But, look, the pressing issue that does need to be addressed and is also pertinent to protections of sex workers against discrimination is the modernisation of the NT Anti-Discrimination Act, It has been stalled. That’s due to a couple of factors, mainly, due to the pending demise or endorsement of the nationally proposed Religious Freedom Bill by the Federal Government.

That’s not just a huge concern for the NT. People across Australia are very concerned about the impact of what may happen to rights that are already in place and protected.

NT sex workers need protection against discrimination, all workers do. LGBTI workers do. NT citizens, and all intersecting marginalised communities in the NT need protection against discrimination.

Sex work and sex workers need to be inserted as attributes as aforementioned. And we, and many Territorians, need protection against vilification.

The NT Anti-Discrimination Act is archaic in its current form, it really needs updating. And this urgently needed action by the NT government has stalled.

But, this action is more pressing than it has ever been in this country, to amend the Act. SWOP NT believes to have a nationally proposed bill that erodes individuals’ human rights and allows for the endorsement of discrimination against each other is divisive and it is shameful.

The NT must be brave, we must stand up and fight back. Territorians are leaders. We’re working together to make this world a better and fairer place for all.

I believe with the passing of many bills over the years in the Northern Territory that align with human rights principles that the updating of the Anti-Discrimination Act is something that we really need to attack right now.

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Paul Gregoire

Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He's the winner of the 2021 NSW Council for Civil Liberties Award For Excellence In Civil Liberties Journalism. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, Paul wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.

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