sex work Queensland
(Image: Respect Inc)

July 3 this year will be the 30th anniversary of the release of the final report from the Fitzgerald Inquiry, a judicial inquiry that found systemic corruption among Queensland Police in relation to organised sex work. It would also be the perfect date for the Palaszczuk government to announce it is taking the next step to decriminalise sex work in Queensland.

The now infamous report concluded that arguments by police for special powers and a sex work-related police squad were unjustified. Yet, 30 years later, Queensland Police Service still has a specialist squad and extreme powers in relation to sex work. This is more than unfinished business; it’s a continuation of a culture of control, interference and misuse of police resources.

This is sex work in 2019

Imagine running an independent business where it’s illegal to contact a colleague to let them know a client has arrived or left. It’s also illegal to work with another colleague, employ a receptionist to manage your calls, use a driver that a colleague recommends, or describe the services you provide in your advertising (even in vague, coded language using acronyms or euphemisms).  

Welcome to the current reality of Queensland sex workers. Every day we choose between working safely or legally.

These aren’t rare technicalities either. Police look through sex worker advertising in Queensland searching for an incorrect word or banned acronym. Finding such a breach triggers their ability to gain a warrant, set up a sting, pose as a client, make a booking, turn up at a sex workers’ workplace, pressure sex workers to agree to sex without condoms or other protection, and seek evidence for further charges. The evidence they are looking for includes: text messages to other workers about clients or bookings, proof of assisting colleagues with advertising, evidence of a receptionist, or the sharing of phones or accommodation.

The resulting “participating in the provision of prostitution” charge is broad and undefined. Phones, laptops and cash are seized as “tainted goods”. And, in most cases, privacy concerns prevent sex workers from fighting the charge.

In 2016-17 charges against sex workers for the “participating” offence increased by 126%, advertising breaches increased by 450%, and in the last 12 months there are record levels of charges in some parts of Queensland.

The outcome of all this? Sex workers don’t trust police. And that’s an enormous problem when they need their help.

There is a growing cohort of Queensland sex workers who feel they are not taken seriously when attempting to report serious crimes. The few tenacious sex workers who have turned to police, and found an officer willing to take a report and follow up crimes, stand out as exceptions to this norm.

Why police expend such resources on undercover stings that result in small-scale fines and charges against individual sex workers remains unclear. The police commissioner has not agreed to meet with Respect Inc to discuss these issues, even after receiving a letter documenting sex workers’ concerns.

Taking action

The Queensland legislative landscape is a complex one for sex workers and the sex industry more broadly. The sex industry is regulated by a “licensing model”, splitting the industry into a very small legal sector and a much larger illegal sector that is effectively excluded from licensing.

Extensive requirements such as probity checks, set-up costs and ongoing fees are significant barriers to sex industry businesses gaining a license. But an even greater barrier is that the regulatory approach only allows one kind of sex business model to operate legally. Escort agencies, erotic massage parlours, collectives/cooperatives, sex worker doubles businesses, pop-ups, lap-dancing, BDSM salons, cuddle houses and all forms of overhead sharing among independent sex workers are illegal in Queensland despite operating legally around the rest of the country. 

These business models existed in Queensland before the laws were introduced in 1999, and many still operate illegally. There are only 20 licensed brothels, all but one in the state’s south east.

The licensing model has cost in excess of $10 million in government funds. Each year almost 50% of the licensing costs come from an annual government top-up, while police actively target the illegal businesses. It’s an untenable situation.

In 2018 the Queensland Labor Party adopted a policy to repeal the licensing model. An announcement by police minister Mark Ryan last October indicated that the government is not sitting on its hands:

The government has begun a process to refer the question of the decriminalisation of the sex worker industry and the establishment of a new regulatory framework to the Queensland Law Reform Commission.

So the Queensland government has all the tools, policy and political impetus to overhaul the sex work laws this year. The challenge will be to maintain focus on sex worker labour rights and safety. Police are literally using their badges to prop up a licensing model, and sex workers pay the price with police harassment, stings, arrests and fines. A Labor government concerned about workers’ rights cannot overlook these issues any longer.

Elena Jeffreys is the state coordinator of sex worker organisation Respect Inc. She was not paid for this story.

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