Could Belgium's historic labour law for sex workers usher change across Europe?

A French sex worker holds a banner reading "Without rights" at a march in Paris, 2 June, 2011
A French sex worker holds a banner reading "Without rights" at a march in Paris, 2 June, 2011 Copyright AP Photo/Jacques Brinon
Copyright AP Photo/Jacques Brinon
By Tamsin Paternoster
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The law is the first in Europe — and the world — to provide sex workers with social security provisions such as pensions and maternity leave, as well as an official employment contract.

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When Emily first heard about Belgium's decision to create Europe's first labour law for sex workers in Europe, she was excited that her working conditions would finally improve.

"In this way, we will get a wider choice of safe places where we can offer our services in a self-determined way because, at the moment, that's not really the case," Emily, who lives in a major city in Belgium, told Euronews.

An independent sex worker for three years, Emily (name changed to protect her identity) has personally experienced the lack of support for sex workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, where many lost their income yet were ineligible for government support as their sector did not officially exist. 

She and others are hoping this will change with the introduction of Europe's — and the world's — first labour law for sex workers in Belgium.

What does the new law mean in practice?

The legislation, which was approved with 93 votes in favour, 33 abstentions and 0 votes against earlier this month, allows procurers to provide Belgian sex workers with an employment contract for the first time. 

The change gives sex workers access to social security provisions such as pensions, health insurance and annual vacation. It also gives sex workers protection from work-related risks, including implementing standards on who can become an employer. 

A chair inside of a sex-workers booth stands empty in Antwerp, 3 November 2020
A chair inside of a sex-workers booth stands empty in Antwerp, 3 November 2020AP Photo/Virginia Mayo

Daan Bauwens of the Belgian Union for Sex Workers UTSOPI explained that the new law places restrictions on who can hand out contracts to sex workers — limiting the possibility of exploitation. 

People who have previous convictions such as human trafficking and theft will not be able to become employers, Bauwens told Euronews, "This is a very important thing because up till now, it was possible."

Sex workers are also entitled to further key rights, including being able to refuse a client or a sexual act, as well as interrupt a sexual act at any point.

If any of these rights are invoked more than 10 times in one year, either the employee or employer can call a government mediator to intervene. 

Different strokes, different folks

Belgium keeps being an outlier in the European context when it comes to answering the demands of sex workers' unions. 

Just two years ago, it became the first country in Europe to decriminalise sex work in Europe. 

Other countries in Europe have roughly either legalised sex work to some extent or followed the so-called "Nordic model", which criminalises the procuring and purchasing of sex work. 

The different legalisation models in countries like Germany, the Netherlands, and Austria mean that each country has a distinct set of conditions that must be fulfilled to be able to carry out sex work legally, Bauwens said.

In this Friday March 29, 2019, file image tourists bathing in a red glow emanating from the windows and peep shows' neon lights, in Amsterdam's red light district.
In this Friday March 29, 2019, file image tourists bathing in a red glow emanating from the windows and peep shows' neon lights, in Amsterdam's red light district.Peter Dejong/Copyright 2019 The AP. All rights reserved

In some places, a sex worker could still be criminalised for carrying out work if they can't meet certain preconditions, something that would not be the case under a system of full decriminalisation.

Furthermore, countries such as Germany, which follow their own legalisation model, have said they are considering tweaks to the existing rules, such as criminalising the clients of sex workers under the Nordic model.

Yet, according to Emily, those kinds of changes only make sex work more dangerous.

"If you criminalise the clients, the good clients, the ones that want to respect the law, will stop seeing sex workers," she explained.

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"The ones that don't care about the law will continue seeing sex workers anyway. As a result, we get worse clients."

Safety and well-being before national politics

Europe has long been unable to agree on a unified model to regulate sex work. Last September, the European Parliament adopted a divisive report on how to regulate sex work that outlined the need to reduce the demand for sex work and punish clients. 

Despite the report having no legislative impact, multiple sex worker's associations and NGOs were critical of its recommendations.

"In some ways, this is not a pan-European matter — as the European Commission has told us when we apply for funding, it depends on the member states," Executive Director of the European Sex Workers Rights Alliance Sabrina Sanchez told Euronews.

Emily agreed that the different and competing approaches are symbolic of national politics. Yet, what should matter is everyone's safety and well-being, and full decriminalisation across Europe is the most important first step, followed by strict labour laws, she said.

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"If you look at the science, then you will see that studies show that decriminalisation is much more effective in protecting sex workers and that actually, if you criminalise the clients, then you make it much more dangerous to engage in sex work."

"I hope that the international community at one point is going to realise this — and follow Belgium's example," Emily concluded.

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