The Global Labor Rights Movement You've Likely Never Heard Of

When the swollen bodies of ten sex workers in the town of Nakuru, Kenya, were discovered in the fall of 2015, showing signs of torture and ritualistic killing, police did practically nothing to solve these serial murders.
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When the swollen bodies of ten sex workers in the town of Nakuru, Kenya, were discovered in the fall of 2015, showing signs of torture and ritualistic killing, police did practically nothing to solve these serial murders. Frustrated by the lack of progress, hundreds of women and men in the Kenyan sex industry, representing numerous sex worker-led groups that have mushroomed throughout the country under the Kenyan Sex Worker Alliance, organized protests to pressure police to act.

These activists are part of a determined and vibrant global movement for the rights of sex workers that has existed for decades - one of the largest labor rights movements in the world. Since 100 prostitutes in Lyon, France, occupied a church in 1975 to protest police abuse over 40 years ago, sex workers across the globe have been organizing for their rights to work and to live free from violence and discrimination in countries as diverse as Brazil, China, England, Guyana, Kyrgyzstan, the United States, Zimbabwe, and beyond. It's a strikingly inclusive movement, comprising sex workers of diverse nationalities, races, gender identities, sexual orientations, and socio-economic classes.

Powerful allies are now joining the call for sex workers' rights. Influential and mainstream health and human rights organizations like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, UNAIDS, and the World Health Organization have in recent years all come out publicly in favor of the full decriminalization of sex work.

I've witnessed the blossoming of the global sex workers' rights movement and its resilient diversity first-hand. Over several years, I conducted field research and in-depth interviews with 163 sex worker activists in Botswana, Kenya, Mauritius, Namibia, Nigeria, South Africa, and Uganda to document the rise of sex worker political activism in Africa, which is spreading like a brushfire throughout the continent.

Although there's some historical evidence of sex worker organizing in Africa as early as the Mau Mau rebellion in colonial Kenya in the 1950s, formal African sex worker activism truly began in the 1990s with the initial organizing of Kenyan women providing sexual services in bars in Nairobi who formed the Bar Hostess Empowerment and Support Programme and the establishment of the Sex Worker Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT), the first sex workers' rights organization in South Africa. Now, sex worker activists are agitating for their rights throughout Africa, engaging in public protests, media advocacy, community outreach, and law reform efforts.

Many of the sex workers I interviewed had previously worked as domestic workers, waitresses, hairdressers, or factory workers. They said they made the economically rational decision to do sex work because they could make more money in the sex industry than in their previous employment. They had generally limited economic opportunities, but their situations were no different than the vast majority of workers in Africa and throughout the world who, under global capitalism and rising income equality, also have restricted work options. Like other laborers, sex workers are simply doing the best they can to provide financially for themselves and their families. And they assert their right to agency and self-determination even in the face of economic constraints.

The common debates around sex work - whether prostitution is inherently violent, whether sex can ever be commoditized - are divorced from the urgent concerns of sex workers in the industry who are focused on how they can have more power and control over their labor. And yet, too often, the voices of sex workers themselves, and the issues they raise regarding the link between the criminalization of sex work and human rights violations, are silenced.

The human rights abuses sex workers in Africa and throughout the world experience are due to the criminalization of sex work: The sex workers I interviewed report physical and sexual violence from law enforcement who demand bribes or sex in lieu of arrest and confiscate their condoms as evidence of prostitution. They face abuse from criminals posing as clients who know they can get away with beating, raping, and stealing from sex workers because when sex workers report these crimes, police don't take them seriously. They experience discrimination from healthcare workers who outright refuse them services or breach patient confidentiality by publicly revealing their private health information. And because they work in the shadows, they have no access to labor protections like overtime pay, occupational health and safety standards, workers' compensation, or employee grievance procedures.

Many sex workers also face intersectional stigma and violence - targeted by police and the community at large not only because they are sex workers, but also because they are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, migrants, or people of color. Transgender female sex workers I interviewed face some of the harshest forms of abuse and experience severely limited economic opportunities outside of sex work because of anti-trans discrimination. In response to these abuses, the sex workers' rights movement in Africa has grown at an exponential rate, despite vocal opposition from some religious and political leaders who argue that sex work is a colonial creation, even though there is historical evidence of pre-colonial prostitution in, for example, the Asante kingdom, Akan societies of the Gold and Ivory Coast, and pre-colonial Nsukka and Igalaland. In fact, it's not prostitution itself, but anti-prostitution laws in Africa that often came with colonialism. For instance, the Ugandan penal code, which outlaws prostitution, is based on the British colonial penal code, which embraced Victorian ideals of female chastity. Customary law among ethnic groups in Uganda, on the other hand, did not explicitly outlaw prostitution in pre-colonial times.

Sex worker activists in Africa reject the notion that they are cultural deviants and continue to fight for their rights. In Nigeria, for example, brothel-based sex workers of the Women of Power Initiative have taken to the streets of Lagos to protest violations of their labor rights. Ugandan activists of the sex-worker led group WONETHA successfully organized against local government efforts to shut down a drop-in center in northern Gulu, where sex workers accessed free condoms and health information. In South Africa, sex worker activists with the national sex worker-led movement Sisonke are leading a sophisticated law reform campaign calling for the full decriminalization of adult sex work. They advocate for the repeal of all criminal laws attached to sex work, and the protection of sex workers' rights, health, and safety by subjecting the industry to labor law and policy.

There's a difference between decriminalization and legalization: Sex worker activists do not advocate for legalization (the approach taken in countries such as the Netherlands and Senegal) because under this framework, sex work that takes place outside stringent and unfair legal regulations remains criminalized. Instead, they look to the example of New Zealand, which fully decriminalized sex work in 2003, and where studies have shown increased well-being, access to labor protections, and empowerment to report violence to the police among sex workers. Sex worker activists throughout the world also advocate against the so-called "Swedish Model," which criminalizes clients who buy sexual services but does not technically criminalize people who sell sex. They argue that this model makes sex workers more vulnerable to violence as they negotiate faster and go into more hidden areas in order to protect their criminalized clients from police detection.

To achieve their political goals, sex worker activists in Africa have also begun to develop coalitions with similarly marginalized groups. They've engaged in intersectional movement building with labor, HIV, farm worker, harm reduction, anti-poverty, and LGBT rights movements. In Uganda, for example, sex worker activists were vocal and active participants in the civil society campaign against a now-invalidated draconian anti-homosexuality law. And contrary to the notion that sex workers' rights are anathema to feminism, women's rights activists worked hand-in-hand with sex workers to birth the movement in East Africa.

Sex workers in Africa and throughout the world, through their inspired activism, continue to fight against erasure and make the simple but powerful assertion that in any discussions about sex work, it's their voices - and evidence, not emotion - that we must center.

Chi Adanna Mgbako, a clinical professor of law in the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice at Fordham Law School, is the author of "To Live Freely in This World: Sex Worker Activism in Africa."

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