How COVID-19 helped sex workers in Belgium make history
Sex workers perform songs at an event to celebrate decriminalisation Brussels, Belgium. May 11, 2022. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Joanna Gill
What’s the context?
Sex workers celebrate as Belgium is the first EU country to decriminalise sex work, hoping to blaze a trail for other countries
- Belgium is the first in Europe to decriminalise sex work
- Coronavirus lockdowns triggered legal changes
- New labour code could grant paid time off and sick leave
BRUSSELS - Glitter glistened on Maxime Maes' cheeks as he stepped forward to deliver his speech, flashing a smile across the room, and shouted to the partying crowd, "We won!"
The celebration - bringing together sex workers, government officials, social workers and campaigners - was the culmination of a 30-year push to decriminalise the buying and selling of sex in Belgium.
Maes, a sex worker turned campaigner, said he had given everything to get the law changed and the party - in a small Brussels arts venue - was the first time it felt real.
"When people said, 'Yes, yes, it's voted, we won,' it was like, I don't know, all my words were crushed," said Maes, his voice juddering with nervous laughter at the recollection.
"I felt a big emotion and I cried."
Belgium is the first country in Europe to decriminalise sex work, which supporters say will allow sex workers to set their own terms, and could reduce exploitation and violence, and make it easier to access medical services.
"Decriminalisation will provide a clear framework with minimum conditions that can be controlled, so that problematic situations will be detected more quickly," a Justice Ministry spokesperson said in emailed comments.
Views differ across the European Union, where a patchwork of rules apply and some are keen to outlaw the buying of all sexual services in a review of the bloc's anti-trafficking directive.
In Greece and the Netherlands, sex work is legal and sex workers must apply for a licence and follow strict rules on where and how they work. France and Sweden punish clients, while sex workers in Croatia and Romania face arrest and prosecution.
The Thomson Reuters Foundation interviewed four sex workers in Brussels, all of whom supported decriminalisation, saying it gives them legal protection to work safely, reduces stigma and offers more control.
"It's the freedom to be me ... the freedom to decide the conditions of my work, to refuse a client," said a transgender sex worker, who declined to be named.
Red lights and grey zones
Activists say the coronavirus pandemic was the catalyst for parliament's March vote to remove sex work from the penal code. Lockdowns left sex workers with no income and - given their uncertain legal status - no unemployment benefits.
"All of a sudden people were confronted with images of women standing in line on the streets, waiting here in Brussels to get food," said Daan Bauwens, whose union of sex workers, Utsopi, was instrumental in getting the law changed.
"These are like Great Depression scenes."
Previously, sex work had been tolerated in Belgium but those who facilitated it, such as hotel owners, accountants or web developers, were liable for prosecution.
The policy aimed to prevent pimping and exploitation but campaigners say the lack of legal clarity led to abuses, with sex workers forced to work long hours in venues with poor hygiene and the risk of violence.
"With the owners of the spa or nightclub, they say you are an independent worker, so they don't pay any insurance, any holidays ... and they take 50%," said Julia, a sex worker based in Brussels.
Out of the shadows
When Belgium's new rules enter into force on June 1, sex workers should enjoy the same rights as other workers.
Previously, landlords could charge exorbitant rents and banks shut down sex workers' accounts, fearing prosecution for aiding sex work. This should change, and if not, the sex workers could sue them for discrimination, said Bauwens.
He is working with the Justice Ministry on a new labour code, due to be finalised this year, which should guarantee sex workers' rights to a pension, paid annual leave, sickness and maternity leave.
"You prosecute the ones that don't respect the labour code," said Bauwens, who believes bringing sex work out of the shadows will reduce the risk of violence, and of infections like HIV.
"If you criminalise, instead of decriminalise, you are creating a black market where everything can happen."
Exploitation is punishable by up to five years in jail and fines of up to 50,000 euros ($53,665), under the penal code.
Rocky road ahead
The reforms could meet resistance from some politicians and feminist groups who fear that making it easier to sell sex sends the wrong signal and could lead to a rise in trafficking.
"We consider prostitution is sexual exploitation," said Alexia Farfara, campaigns officer at the European Women's Lobby which advocates criminalising clients to stamp out sex work.
"For us, it's a form of violence that is disproportionately affecting women and girls." Sex workers and campaigners say that the true impact of decriminalisation will not be clear for a couple of years.
"I don't think the law will magically change sex workers' lives from one day to the next," the trans sex worker said.
Much depends on the details of the new labour code, which could be sabotaged by politicians by adding rules that are too expensive to implement, such as requiring brothels to have five bathrooms, said Bauwens.
Olivia, a sex worker in Brussels, said the law may now be on her side, but her close relatives still may not.
"I told all my friends and they are really supportive," she said. "But I didn't tell my family ... They are not going to like it for sure."
Maes, the campaigner, hopes that Belgium could set an example for the rest of Europe, but remains realistic.
"Of course it is not perfect. The idea to create a perfect model, it doesn't exist in our society," he said, before returning to celebrate into the small hours.
($1 = 0.9317 euros)
(Reporting by Joanna Gill. Editing by Katy Migiro)
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