Migration policy and modern slavery: no sex worker left behind?

May 26, 2023
Immigration law. Two passports and a judge gavel on wooden desk background,

While minds turn to an overhaul of Australia’s migration policies, anti-sex work sentiment may have created a parallel policy reality for some.

System design to prevent migrant worker exploitation has yet not been fully explored in Australian politics, perhaps because orthodoxy dictates (rightly or wrongly) that a strong-arm criminal justice approach will be more popular. The establishment of the Department of Home Affairs (DHA) and expansion of Australian Border Force (ABF) powers continues the trend of the militarisation of immigration compliance. Scarlet Alliance agrees with former Department of Immigration Deputy Secretary Abul Rizvi that those moves had appalling consequences, but not for the same reasons he argued in the article “Will Labor restore immigration compliance activity” published in Pearls and Irritations on 3 May 2023.

Laws and policies that criminalise aspects of sex work are ineffective in improving work conditions for migrant sex workers in Australia. Targeting and criminalisation does nothing to increase the safety or the labour rights of migrant sex workers, and the agencies carrying out such actions are often misinformed with superficial and inadvertently sexist and racist assumptions. Sex workers have higher hopes for the future of immigration policy in Australia, and see potential for realisation in the recent Parkinson review.

After months of community consultation and hundreds of submissions, the Parkinson, Howe and Azarias review report was released in March and followed by an ‘outline of the Government’s Migration Strategy’ in April. The review team was not “specifically requested to consider the issue of how to combat the apparent widespread exploitation of temporary migrant workers” and note instead that the “issues of migrant worker exploitation and exploitation of Australia’s visa system are being separately examined by Christine Nixon AO APM.”

Even so, the review panel urged “engineering exploitation risk out of the migration system where possible,” noting three main vulnerability factors in the current migration system that have caught the eye of the sex worker movement. These findings concur with decades of Scarlet Alliance lobbying on this issue, and are the strongest indicator that this review could lead to meaningful and long term change to work conditions for temporary migrants in Australia:

  1. Risk of deportation or visa cancellation creates barriers to reporting workplace exploitation to authorities, with no repercussions for bad workplace practices.
  1. Third parties (the review panel focussed on employers, for sex workers this includes debt contractors and migration agents) have disproportionate power over future work visas or pathways to permanent residency, creating barriers to workplace mobility and resulting in migrant workers being stuck with bad work conditions.
  1. Lack of structural support such as local networks, reliable information in languages other than English, understanding of Australian workplace laws or access to civil remedies increases potential for vulnerability.

Scarlet Alliance has long argued for a ‘firewall’ between Fair Work Ombudsman, Safe Work jurisdictional bodies and the Department of Home Affairs to protect migrant workers from visa-related repercussions when they speak out against exploitation or industrial issues. We have also long argued that third parties (be they employers, debt contractors or migration agents) are a key site of vulnerability to exploitation that can be

minimised by providing safe, legal and accessible migration channels (including for sex workers)to migrate to Australia. Additionally, the work of our Migration Project (2009-2017) and the work of CALD peer educators in sex worker organisations around Australia highlights the need to “increase resources to multilingual peer education through culturally appropriate projects within sex-worker organisations, translated resources and community engagement” and that “peer education and community outreach [are] effectivein mitigating social and cultural isolation and providing information, referrals, and support when needed, which reduces workers’ vulnerability to exploitation.”

Before celebrating this newfound harmony, the sex worker community must ensure the inquiry and report by Christine Nixon is not pulling in the other direction. Media coverage this month sparked fresh fears among migrant sex workers of diminished, rather than improved access to labour rights in Australia. With nothing formal yet released, at least one mainstream outlet claims the final report recommends barring all temporary migrants from working in the sex industry. This is directly counter to the aims of the inquiry, and the findings of the Parkinson, Howe and Azarias review. Only 12 years ago, then WA Attorney General Christian Porter raised (and failed) to do the same in Western Australia. The approach has been a dismal failure for migrant sex worker rights in New Zealand. Canadian HIV and sex worker organisations are currently attempting to roll back the immigration restrictions on sex work there, and comparative research work also condemns the policy.

Scarlet Alliance continues to seek a briefing meeting with the Minister to clarify what will become of the Nixon recommendations, and will speak to this issue at the Attorney General’s Roundtable in Human Trafficking and Slavery later in the year. The next public briefing event by the Scarlet Alliance Asian Migrant Sex Workers Advisory Group is at 3pm AEST on 2 June 2023, to coincide with International Sex Workers’ Day, attendance is free, RSVP here.

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