red light lantern sex worker discrinimation
(Image: Unsplash/Olha Zaika)

The day Sally* and her partner paid off their house together she bought a cake. Her partner ate a piece, looked up, and told her she had to leave. The relationship was over.

Sally is a sex worker. In the years leading up to the purchase of the house, the Commonwealth Bank had closed her business account, and her attempts to set up merchant services at other banks had been rejected. The banks refused to say why, let alone put the information in writing. American Express said they would provide these services, but charge her a rate that would make work unsustainable.

“They said sex workers were a more at-risk workforce: ‘you’re more likely to steal, commit fraud, or have your clients commit fraud’,” Sally told Crikey.

The same occurred with life insurance and business insurance. “If I were a plumber, I could get insurance, so if I got sick for a few weeks I could pay my bills, but because I’m a sex worker I can’t,” she said.

Eventually Sally decided to shift entirely to cash. She was told by other sex workers that there was no point applying for a home loan. Staff at CBA told her the same thing. This meant that her substantial contribution to the purchase of the house — “I gave him my life savings” — hadn’t left much of a paper trail. A lawyer advised her the lack of paperwork and the costs would make a court case against her former partner difficult. Further, the process would publicly out her as a sex worker.

This was two years ago. Her financial situation has been on a knife edge ever since. “Now when I come home, I think ‘can I afford to turn that light on? Can I afford to run the stove?'” she told Crikey.

Sex workers are rarely employees. They are far more likely to operate as small businesses, reliant on merchant services. Sally’s experience illustrates what can happen when those are denied. Individuals and industry groups say this is happening more and more.

“I was one of many people back in August who received a letter from NAB saying I was having my banking services ceased because of my profession,” Charlie Forde, a sex worker, told Crikey. “I took it to social media. I’m lucky, I’m very open to all my friends and family, a lot of people aren’t.”

When her social media posts on this issue made it into the media, someone outed her to her “day job”. Her employer was fine with it. Again, Forde said, she is lucky.

“Also because I’m working lawfully, I’m protected by anti-discrimination legislation to some degree,” she explains.

Jane Green of the Vixen Collective, Victoria’s peer-only sex workers group told Crikey: “Sex workers do have protection under the discrimination legislation in Victoria, which is good and bad; we are protected only if we are in compliance with the law. So what that means, if we are complying with licensing requirements, you have protection. But this leaves the marginalised among us, people working illegally, without protection.”

Street-based workers are automatically disqualified from discrimination protection, and even workers who are licensed and registered can’t be in breach of any other law as part of their work.

“The primary response is to keep your status as a sex worker secret,” Green said. “You expect that you’ll be discriminated against and so you try not to let people know.”

Other workers and industry figures Crikey spoke to agreed.

“I’ve chosen to deal with it by remaining invisible from the banks, I don’t give them any information about what I do,” said Aimee*, a Victoria-based sex worker. “I started renting for the first time this year, and did a complete lie of a lease agreement, and now I have to be very careful about maintaining that image.”

“Housing is one of the flow-on effects of this discrimination,” Roger Sorrenti, spokesman for Sex Work Law Reform Victoria told Crikey. “If people can’t access business banking, how can they get a home loan? How can they demonstrate that they make adequate income?”

This happens across the country, and while NAB was recently singled out for the practice, workers and businesses have reported similar issues across all major banks. The Australian Banking Association has no policy on the matter, leaving it to individual banks’ discretion.

“So much of banks’ treatment of sex workers is arbitrary, it really depends on the individual staff you end up dealing with,” Elena Jeffreys, a Queensland-based sex worker and state coordinator of Respect Inc told Crikey. “Sex workers often have no choice but to wear the discrimination and try their luck at a different bank.”

This doesn’t just affect individual sex workers, but businesses across the industry — brothels, retailers; essentially any adult service.

Brothel owner Bernie, who has run a legal brothel for just over 20 years — nearly as long as brothels have been legal in Victoria — has been recently notified that every business account he has with NAB is to be closed in 45 days.

“They haven’t told me why, and they say that — according to the contract — they aren’t obliged to,” he told Crikey.

Small Business Ombudsman Kate Carnell told Crikey, “We had one situation where a business that did services for people with disabilities, including escort services had their banking services cancelled.”

If the banks have any evidence of criminality to support the cancelling of services, they don’t provide it.

“People get a letter telling them their banking services are going to be revoked, with no reasons given, and then if they ask why, they are told ‘we can’t tell you’,” said Carnell.

In response to criticism over the practice, a spokesperson for NAB said the bank was meeting requirements under the Anti-Money Laundering and Counter-Terrorism Financing Act.

But for many the logic doesn’t add up. “If the argument is that the industry is high risk, surely denying access to banks would put these businesses at a higher-risk,” Eros Association general manager Rachel Payne told Crikey.

The same is true of individual sex workers, Jeffreys says.

“It forces sex workers into a cash economy, locked out of access to mortgages, loans, and documentation for the ATO that other people take for granted. The outcome is the opposite of the intention.”

*Names changed for privacy.