Nick McKenzie tells us he has exposed an underworld of human trafficking. All he has exposed is his own ignorance and racist assumptions about Asian migrant sex workers. This documentary highlights the failure of the criminal justice approach to trafficking, and that Australia needs to provide accessible migration pathways and full rights to migrant sex workers.
“There seems to be an ignorance and voyeuristic fascination with migrant sex workers that is perpetuated by a seemingly never ending stream of ill informed and poorly researched media stories. Dangerously, these stories peddle well worn stereotypes which then become public opinion, and are the drivers behind bad policies that overstep the fair and reasonable application of the law. When it comes to migrant sex workers, fair and reasonable goes out the window, and the voices of actual migrant sex workers are always absent.”
Excerpt from “WE ARE MIGRANT SEX WORKERS” Poster- as part of We Don’t Cross Borders, Borders Cross Us Poster Collection (2012).
The documentary presents lurid, unethical (and potentially illegal) undercover footage of sex workers engaging in normal work activities as evidence of trafficking and exploitation. This non-consensual, exploitative footage of Asian migrant sex workers at work, in lingerie, does nothing to further the premise of the documentary, and only serves to titillate the audience. Nick McKenzie continually implies that the capturing of this banal footage puts his undercover investigators at risk, when it is actually the Asian migrant sex workers who are having their privacy and wellbeing put at risk.
Footage of sex workers working from motel rooms in Queensland, and introducing themselves to clients inside brothels in Victoria is provided as evidence of “sex trafficking syndicates”, when all that is portrayed is normal business practices of individual sex workers. The documentary buys into and promotes racist assumptions that Asian women are passive, uneducated and at the mercy of shadowy hidden figures, and refuses to acknowledge that Asian migrant sex workers are well travelled, experienced, empowered and independent.
Nick McKenzie then travels to South Korea to get the testimony of a sex worker who willingly travelled to Melbourne to do sex work, but experienced an exploitative working environment. Migrant sex workers should have full access to industrial rights mechanisms in order to address their working conditions, without fear of deportation. Tellingly, when asked if she tried to seek help from police, this worker states that “the police themselves are scary”. This is repeated later by UK police stating that alleged trafficking victims are “not willing to talk” to them. These comments articulate that the police themselves are perpetrators of violence to sex workers, and that police engagement usually ends in the deportation of the migrant worker. This documentary could have explored the failure of the current criminal justice approach to trafficking and the need for Australia to embrace a rights based approach and accessible migration pathways, but instead decided to support an approach that does not support victims of exploitation or trafficking.
“The media has a lot of power to shape people’s ideas and by creating these stereotypes they affect people’s view of us, including the police. Anti-trafficking [media] and stereotyping impacts on sex workers – it results in raids, harassment and discrimination toward Asian sex workers …These raids are harmful, sex workers who experience them now associate the police force with fear and danger rather than safety and are unlikely to go to them for support. This creates further barriers for sex workers to access justice and services in society.”
Bee, a sex worker and migrant from Thailand and Vixen peer educator, speaking in Naarm on International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers 2022.
Nick McKenzie, like a bull in a china shop, doorstops an alleged “visa fixer”. Rather than question Australia’s inaccessible migration policies and practices that force migrant workers to engage third parties to access legal migration, Nick frames these third parties as “the handmaidens of organised crime”. We posit that it is the barriers to migrant sex workers accessing safe and legal migration pathways that are the real handmaidens of organised crime.
Jules Kim, then CEO of Scarlet Alliance, Australian Sex Workers Association (and current Global Coordinator of the Global Network of Sex Worker Projects) presents an evidence and rights based response in this otherwise sensationalist and ill-informed piece. Jules clearly articulates that Australia is complicit in creating vulnerabilities to exploitation through its migration policies and barriers to access industrial rights mechanisms for migrant workers. Her final statement that “there are a lot of crooks in this scenario” refers to the institutions responsible for the barriers to migration and rights for migrant workers. We agree, and would add that the unevidenced narrative perpetuated in this documentary means that truth and the rights of Asian migrant sex workers are the victims.
The documentary suggests that tighter regulation of the sex industry is a solution to these imagined issues. There is a plethora of evidence (please see the further reading resource list) that the full decriminalisation of sex work is the best practice model of sex industry regulation, and that a decriminalised environment assists in the prevention and detection of exploitation and trafficking, and access to justice and support. Only through a decriminalised environment are sex workers able to safely access our health, legal and industrial rights. Suggestions that there are people who should be banned from running a sex industry business (but not banned from running other businesses that employ people) are based on a misguided assumption that sex workers are somehow inherently more vulnerable than other workers, rather than looking at the legislative frameworks, policies and pervasive stigma and discrimination that denies sex workers and migrants access to full legal, industrial and health rights.
The reality is that trafficking in the sex industry in Australia is isolated, and not a systemic feature of the industry. Data from the Australian Institute of Criminology on trafficking prosecutions data and convictions demonstrates that trafficking occurs mostly outside the sex industry, and that sex industry cases largely involve migrant sex workers who come to do sex work in Australia. The documentary seems to suggest that the lack of prosecutions is somehow evidence that systemic trafficking is “hiding in plain sight”. This obsession of finding trafficking cases that do not exist diverts the focus from actual cases of trafficking in Australia and prevents an evidence-based response to the problem.
Statement made in collaboration between Scarlet Alliance, Australian Sex Workers Association; Vixen; and Respect Inc.
Further Reading Resources:
- Sex workers respond to ‘exploitation’ allegations by Major Organised Crime Squad and sensationalist media by Respect Inc
- Briefing Paper: Migration and Sex Work by Global Network of Sex Worker Projects
- Collateral Damage: The Impact of Anti-Trafficking Measures on Human Rights around the World by the Global Alliance Against Trafficking Women (GAATW)
- Hit & Run: The impact of anti trafficking policy and practice on Sex Worker’s Human Rights in Thailand by Empower Foundation
- Understanding Migrant Sex Workers by Butterfly (Asian and Migrant Sex Workers Support Network)
- Migrant sex workers in Australia by Australian Institute of Criminology
Full text from the “WE ARE MIGRANT SEX WORKERS” Poster- as part of We Don’t Cross Borders, Borders Cross Us Poster Collection (2012)
Migrant sex workers are well travelled, experienced, empowered and independent.
Research and anecdotal evidence from sex worker organisations demonstrates that migrant sex workers are often older than their non-migrant counterparts. Many migrant sex workers have lived experiences overseas prior to coming to Australia and many report having previously engaged in sex work abroad. The vast majority of migrant sex workers in Australia have independently travelled to Australia. Because of the limited visa options for sex workers travelling to Australia, especially travelling from low income countries, sex workers may choose to engage an agent to facilitate their travel. This need to engage a third party agent is exacerbated by the lack of translated resources and forms when applying for a visa to Australia. Use of a migration agent is common and does not constitute trafficking. There has been a conflation of the terminology of trafficking and migration for sex work. Trafficking has been used as an excuse to introduce excessive regulation of the sex industry and the migration of people for sex work. The reality is that sex workers choose to travel and work, just as people in other occupations choose to do.
We are strong and choose when, where and how we work.
We choose to sex work for a variety of reasons. This is no different to the decisions people make to engage in any job. If we are not satisfied with our workplaces, we can choose to work somewhere else. If we no longer want to sex work we can choose to leave our jobs. The only threat to our freedom to work how and when we want comes from the restrictive legal environments that are being threatened in the name of anti-trafficking responses. These laws, which are allegedly for our own protection, restrict our movement and our right to choose our occupation. For the vast majority of migrant sex workers who choose to work, these laws only function to harass us, and discriminate against our choices.
We have a strong network of friends and peers who we turn to as our main source of information and support.
Sex workers are most likely to turn to friends for information and support. Research and anecdotal evidence supports this fact. demonstrates the value of peer support and information sharingIn an environment where police and immigration regularly raid our workplaces and harass us – allegedly to “rescue” us from supposed acts of “trafficking”; and many states and territories in Australia still criminalise sex work- it is no surprise that migrant sex workers do not trust anyone who is not a sex worker when accessing support.
We have high rates of condom use and low rates of STIs and HIV.
The consistent findings of numerous research projects have found that migrant and CALD sex workers have high rates of condom use at work. There is no measurable difference between the condom use of migrant and non migrant sex workers. The findings of these research projects have been supported by the continued low rates of STIs amongst sex workers. In Australia we still have no recorded instances of HIV transmission between sex worker and client. Despite these findings media outlets still refer to the supposed “compliance of submissive Asian women to demands of unsafe sex”.
We earn a good income and have workplace satisfaction and a good level of knowledge of sexual health, services and our workplace rights.
In the recent Scarlet Alliance Migration Project survey of 592 sex workers around Australia, sex workers report high level of income, workplace satisfaction and knowledge of workplace rights. Sex workers have always been proactive in regards to our sexual health. Our bodies are our business and we look after them. The harm reduction strategies employed in relation to sexual health services in Australia, whereby sex workers can access services confidentially and anonymously, are also conducive to high uptake of sexual health services by sex workers in Australia. The investment in peer education for and by sex workers means that promotion of these services is widespread.
Don’t judge us because of our occupation.
Sex workers face a disproportionate amount of stigma and discrimination. This case is even more so for migrant sex workers who face dual stigma of sex worker and migrant. Many of the issues that arise for sex workers are not about our job or our feelings towards our job; instead they are about other people’s attitudes to us and our work. This negative perception is pervasive throughout society and manifests in bad media and laws; it manifests in how we are treated in our day to day interactions with services, banks, police and the people around us. Sex work is work and it is our choice to work. Ask yourself what it is about our jobs that make you judge us. Question the deep seated whorephobia and racism in society that perpetuates this ignorance. We are strong, independent and economically empowered.
We don’t need your pity- we need our rights.
Choosing to travel and sex work gives us freedom, your racism and stereotypes confine us.