Scarlet News:

Key Issues for Asian Migrant Sex Workers: Our 2023 Agenda

Jun 27, 2023 | AMSWAG, News


Scarlet Alliance convenes the Asian Migrant Sex Worker Advisory Group (AMSWAG), made up of Asian migrant sex workers and Asian migrant sex worker peer educators. AMSWAG centres the voices of Asian migrant sex workers in the development of Scarlet Alliance policy and advocacy on issues impacting migrant sex workers.  During the Scarlet Alliance annual National Forum November 2022, AMSWAG facilitated a panel presentation and further discussion highlighting the current key issues for Asian migrant workers across unceded Australia.

This discussion focused on the changing demographics and work practices of Asian migrant sex workers, experiences of discrimination and police harassment, the importance of culturally-competent services across a range of areas, and increasing leadership capacity and opportunities for Asian migrant sex worker peer educators to enable culturally and linguistically relevant peer-support and outreach. Asian migrant sex workers also asserted the importance of sex work being decriminalised and affording all sex workers with the same rights and  protections. This is particularly important for Asian migrant sex workers who experience harassment and discrimination at greater rates.

Based on this panel session and consultation with AMSWAG, this briefing paper sets out some of the priority areas for action and informs the work of Scarlet Alliance to fulfil its Objectives under our Strategic Plan.

Key issue: Leadership, representation and capacity building

Between 2009-2018, the Scarlet Alliance Migration Project, staffed entirely by and for migrant sex workers, was funded as part of the Australian Government’s response to trafficking and slavery. The Project built capacity for sex worker peer educators in Australia to provide in-language peer support, education and referals, information on rights and responsibilities in relation to Australian laws in each juristiction, and safety in navigating pathways for migration and sex work in Australia. The Project also established partnerships with international sex worker advocacy and support organisations, facilitated migrant sex worker input into the development of anti-trafficking legislation and policy, and challenged harmful myths and stereotypes about migrant sex workers in public discourse.

The loss of funding for this Project in 2019 has led to reduced opportunities for  Asian migrant sex workers to engage in community building, information sharing and networking, and has impacted the leadership capacity and opportunities for Asian migrant peer educators to engage with national issues.

Both informal and formal evaluations have recognised the Project as being integral to ensuring the health, wellbeing, workplace rights and community participation of Asian migrant sex workers living and working in unceded Australia. While a new funding application for the Project is underway, sustainable ongoing Project financing is integral to protecting the gains made over the previous decade.

Leadership and mentoring

Asian migrant sex workers noted the need for community capacity-building underpinned by principles of self-determination, agency, choice, freedom, and responsibility, to enable Asian migrant sex workers to lead policy development, identify advocacy priorities, and facilitate information sharing on issues that impact on them.

The lack of training and networking opportunities for Asian migrant sex worker peer educators and under-resourcing of dedicated culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) education and outreach roles are barriers to meeting the changing support and information needs of the Asian migrant sex worker community. CALD projects within state and territory sex worker organisations are often underfunded or non-existent, and CALD outreach workers are not able to access culturally-appropriate guidance, support and mentoring when supporting Asian migrant sex workers on issues unique to their community.

As one member of AMSWAG stated, ‘you can’t expect lots of eggs without healthy chickens.’ CALD peer educators, outreach workers, translators and community organisers need adequate time and space for capacity-building, and sex worker peer organisations must be equipped to provide opportunities for networking, training and mentoring, strengthen mechanisms for the exchange of information, facilitate culturally safe migrant sex-worker only spaces, and partner in the development of culturally and linguistically-appropriate resources that meet the information needs of Asian migrant sex workers.

Supporting sustainable leadership and capacity-building enables Asian migrant sex workers to provide leadership on national issues, engage in representation and advocacy, deliver support to migrant sex workers, and ensure access to training and networking opportunities for the wider Asian migrant sex worker community.

Accessible, accurate and relevant resources

AMSWAG has identified ongoing and unmet information needs among Asian migrant sex workers. The development and maintenance of accurate, relevant and culturally and linguistically-appropriate targeted resources are essential to the community, and require involvement from bi/multilingual peer educators at every stage of development, not just as translators of a ‘finished product.’

Recent changes to sex work laws in several jurisdictions mean that legal resources need to be updated. Asian migrant sex workers also need comprehensive information on workplace rights and workplace health and safety, as well as practical information such as referrals to other services, dealing with council workers, police and immigration officials, handling workplace raids and bi/multilingual support contacts, particularly for ‘after-hours’ support and information.

AMSWAG also identified a need for the development resources for service providers (e.g. sexual health centres) to assist with providing culturally-competent care to Asian migrant sex workers.

Key issue: stigma and discrimination

While stigma and discrimination affect all sex workers, Asian migrant sex workers experience intersecting marginalisation from racism and stigma due to  assumptions that conflate sex work (and particularly Asian migrant sex workers) with trafficking, slavery and slavery-like practices.

These stereotypes are currently being perpetuated in the legislative/policy sphere in reviews of the Modern Slavery Act 2018 (Cth) and Crimes Act 1990 (Cth), as well as by recent sensationalist and harmful media coverage by reporters. As well as excluding the voices of Asian migrant sex workers from issues that directly affect them, the prevalence of these myths in the public discourse generates harm for Asian migrant sex workers during interactions with health services, accommodation providers, financial services, police and other members of the community.

Trafficking, slavery and slavery-like practices

Recent reviews of the Modern Slavery Act 2018 (Cth) and the trafficking and slavery provisions in the Crimes Act 1990 (Cth) have highlighted the flaws in basing Australia’s response to trafficking, slavery and slavery-like practices within criminal justice and corporate reporting frameworks.

Evidence demonstrates that most trafficking, slavery and slavery-like offences occur outside of the sex industry, and that these practices are driven by poverty, a lack of access to safe migration pathways and a lack of information and redress mechanisms to enforce the rights of migrant workers across all industries.

Australia’s anti-trafficking response has led to migrant sex workers experiencing workplace raids, fear and distrust towards police and immigration officials, migration detention/deportation and a lack of access to compensation/redress options.

The review of the Modern Slavery Act 2018 (Cth) also highlighted the impacts of stigma and discrimination from large corporate entities (such as financial institutions and chain accommodation providers), who are legally required to implement policies to ‘combat modern slavery within supply chains,’ without understanding the nature and drivers of these practices. Frontline staff in these entities are trained to detect and report ‘suspicious’ behaviour, which may result in Asian migrant sex workers losing access to services such as accommodation and banking, without any clear avenue for appeal.

Rather than being based in harmful stigma, law and policy frameworks combating trafficking, slavery and slavery-like practices must be evidence-based,  have input from Asian migrant sex workers, address the drivers of trafficking, slavery and slavery-like offences and provide safe and accessible migration pathways for all types of workers.

Stigma and discrimination from service providers

AMSWAG highlighted that stigma conflating Asian migrant sex workers with victims of trafficking, slavery and slavery-like offences also impacted interactions with services such as healthcare providers. Asian migrant sex workers need to have confidence that when accessing healthcare and community services, it will be confidential, culturally safe, and free from stigma.

Four Essential Actions

The four essential actions to ensure good health outcomes for Asian migrant sex workers, including low rates of BBVs/ STIs, are:

  1. Implementing legal and policy frameworks providing equitable access for Asian migrant sex workers to justice, health and safety, and community participation including sex work decriminalisation, anti-discrimination and vilification protections, safe migration pathways and an evidenced-based human rights response to trafficking, slavery and slavery-like practices.
  2. Supporting Asian migrant sex workers to develop and distribute culturally and linguistically-appropriate resources, information and support options
  3. Sustainably funding the Scarlet Alliance Migration Project to enable capacity and leadership-building for Asian migrant sex worker peer-educators, and to provide support, mentoring and networking opportunities for Asian migrant sex workers across unceded Australia and internationally, and
  4. Ensuring equitable access for Asian migrant sex workers to culturally-competent services and healthcare.