Glasgow Refugee Asylum and Migration Network (GRAMNet)

Bringing together researchers, practitioners and policy makers working with migrants, refugees and asylum seekers in Scotland

Local and international disputes over trafficking, sex work, and the right to unionise

Guest blogger: Karin Persson Strömbäck.

Karin Persson Strömbäck (MSc, University of Stirling, 2010) is a doctoral student in politics at the University of Stirling.  She was awarded a PhD Postgraduate Research Studentship in 2010 to fund research into the question of trade union membership for sex workers in a European context. Karin also has research interests in theoretical approaches to comparative public policy, particularly focusing on ideational approaches and comparative qualitative methods.


On April 5th, 2013, the SWOU (Sex Worker Open University), a collection of sex workers, former sex workers, and allies, arranged an event in Glasgow seeking to work towards community building and the strengthening of sex worker voices as well as to “oppose further criminalisation, including the criminalisation of clients”. One of the venues booked to host presentations and debates open to the public was the STUC (Scottish Trades Union Congress) centre in the West End of Glasgow. However, with a few days notice the STUC decided to cancel the event on the grounds that “[…] the STUC discovered that the specific title of the event it was asked to host was entitled ‘The Scottish Context: Opposing Criminalisation of Clients.

While voicing its support of client criminalization (albeit vaguely), the STUC went on to say that it “[…] is important to separate the specific matter of support or not for the criminalisation of the purchase of sex from the more general discourse on organising and the self-organisation of sex workers. STUC continues to recognise the significant issues and complications in respect of organisation but remains open to a discourse with unions and other groups on this question.”

The response from the STUC indicates that in Scotland, a hegemonic discourse in terms of how to respond to sex worker union organising is far from settled. This must be understood against the backdrop of the recent debates taking place in Holyrood regarding proposed changes to Scottish policy aimed at implementing a demand-side ban on prostitution, often referred to as the “Swedish model”, named after the 1999 pioneering Swedish law.

Scholars agree that the Swedish law was implemented because policy entrepreneurs managed to connect gender ideas regarding inequality between men and women and prostitution. Prostitution was successfully framed as one of the most evident symbols of male violence against women and a symptom of the pathology of existing (unequal) gender relations[1].

In Scotland, this approach to prostitution policy was initiated by Trish Godman (MSP) in 2010 (here), and more recently, by Labour MSP Rhoda Grant (here and here). However, the response by the STUC indicates that while a gender equality perspective has made substantial inroads in Scotland, it is thus far not to the extent where other perspectives have become invalidated.

The question of trade union support for sex workers is far from novel. Indeed, human trafficking is a phenomenon that has long been identified as a priority issue on the domestic, European and international trade union agendas. As a highly complex issue, policy actors have construed and engaged in constructing the phenomena in various ways, ranging from perceiving and promoting trafficking as an issue of border related security in destination countries, to underdevelopment and poverty, lack of migration opportunities, and the exclusion of migrant women from debates on women’s rights in countries of origin. The most disputed solutions to the trafficking for sexual purposes however, is the abolition of prostitution through a demand side ban; the criminalization of clients.

By framing the issue as a question of gender equality in countries of destination, the argument frequently voiced by its supporters is that criminalizing the purchase of sex (CPSS) curbs the demand for sexual services, and thus, the appeal of the country as a potential market for traffickers. Tied in to this view is the perception that CPSS not only makes it an offense to pay for sex, it also changes public opinion of whether or not it is acceptable to do so by making explicit that sex workers are victims of men’s violence against women. Swedish trade unions have thus chosen to exclude sex workers from the right to organise on the grounds that it would justify the purchase of sexual services, and ultimately violence against women.

Critics of this approach on the other hand, argue that any form of criminalization of sex work, whether it involves procurers and clients only, or the industry as a whole, result in increased violence and abuse, as the business must take place in the shadow economy. Furthermore, it is argued that the victim discourse, frequently backed up by data stating that people who sell sex do so because of abusive childhoods (often assuming that prostitution primarily involves women who sell sex to men) leads to a narrow understanding of the phenomena, and ignores sex workers rights to self-determination. A recent report by UNDP states that any form of criminalization forces sex workers to work clandestinely. This obstructs the ability to join trade unions or other organisations, which would make it possible to enjoy protection under labour law[2].

Yet another controversy is the question of coercion and exploitation. While promoters of CPSS employ abolitionist arguments asserting a causal relationship between legalised prostitution and increased trafficking, critics of a demand side ban raise the issue of the conflation of voluntary adult sex work with coerced human trafficking and sexual exploitation of children, as well as the confusion between migrant sex work and trafficking.

The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), its Pan European Regional Council (PERC) and the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) have all emphasised labour rights as human rights, regardless of immigration status or type of work preformed. It is argued that a key tool for helping victims of trafficking to regain their lives and dignity is to ensure freedom of association. However, in 2008, Guy Ryder, then General Secretary of the ITUC, stated that it is up to each country to safeguard human as well as labour rights for people on its territory[3].

The statement reflects the outcome of the debate that took place during the 2007 ETUC congress in Seville, where among other things, specifically targeted trade union strategies to better defend the rights of ‘invisible’ workers was discussed. During the congress, delegates from the Dutch trade union confederation FNV recommended that an amendment must be included in the ‘ETUC Strategy and Action Plan 2007-2011’. The amendment advocated action against trafficking and forced prostitution, but also stressed the importance of interlinking these issues with the human and labor rights of sex workers. However, due to protests from Swedish delegates a voting was held, and since the view of a separation between forced and voluntary prostitution contrasted so greatly between the unions, it became impossible to reach an international agreement on how to relate to the organisation of sex workers. As a consequence, the issue was deemed to be dealt with on the domestic level.

The ambiguous understanding of what exploitation and consent entails has thus fostered broad variety in domestic union responses to sex work, as policy actors have had to engage in moral assessments. This has indeed put policy entrepreneurs seeking to influence domestic prostitution policy in a preferred direction (whether this entails abolitionism or decriminalization) in a position to convince political and institutional actors, as well as the wider public, that policy change is necessary in order to fight trafficking.

It remains to be seen where the STUC end up in terms of throwing their support behind sex workers. As for now, it seems like they are trying to hedge their bets, most likely because a Scottish as well as international hegemonic frame is far from settled.

[1] For example, see: Ekberg G, (2004) The Swedish law that prohibits the purchase of sexual services. Violence Against Women, 1187-1218

[2] UNDP Global Commission on HIV and the Law – Risks, Rights & Health (July, 2012) UNDP, HIV/AIDS Group, p. 40. Avaliable at:, Rights & Health-EN.pdf pp. 39-40

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This entry was posted on April 30, 2013 by in Comment.
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