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Stringent policies against sex workers, brothels and escort agencies by banks and payment systems have been laid bare for the first time in research conducted by the advocacy group Sex Work Law Reform Victoria.  

PayPal, NAB and payment service Square have the clearest policies barring payments from the sex industry — although advocates say their approach is not uncommon. 

The worst offenders

The issue first emerged in 2017 when the adult industry association organisation Eros released a report on discrimination in the banking industry. 

Following dozens of anecdotal reports, Sex Work Law Reform Victoria compiled a list of major institutions’ known policies and practices.

The organisation’s spokesman Roger Sorrenti told Crikey he was surprised at how open institutions were.

“We weren’t expecting them to be so explicit in their discrimination,” he said. 

NAB, for example, provides banking to sex workers as individuals but not to brothels and escort agencies because of different laws and licensing requirements across states and territories.

“This is a risk-based decision we have made to ensure we meet legislative requirements under the anti-money laundering and modern slavery laws,” it said. “This process is part of prudent management of our business for the benefit of our shareholders, customers and employees.” 

In its acceptable use policy, PayPal prohibits transactions involving “certain sexually oriented materials or services”, and Square — which has its Australian headquarters in Melbourne — states the payment services may not be used for “adult entertainment oriented products or services (in any medium)” or escort services. 

The ANZ said it had no policy against providing products or services to individual sex workers, but it declined to comment on brothels and escort agencies. Commonwealth Bank and Westpac didn’t respond to requests for comment. 

Sorrenti said financial discrimination prevented sex workers from achieving life goals.

“A sex worker may not be able to get a home loan, or more commonly a rental lease,” he said. “Getting Centrelink is very difficult if you haven’t got proof of income.” 

Slow transfers and workarounds

A professional sex worker, Christine McQueen, said she has had to accept cash or bank transfers from clients — which can take hours or days to come in — because of Square and PayPal’s policies. 

“I want to have the Square app [EFTPOS reader] … I can never join their system. They should absolutely be made to include us,” she said. 

She said she believed the Australian government should intervene.

“The government still [hasn’t] ratified that employment discrimination is discrimination,” she said.

Those in the industry had to find workarounds, such as channeling their income through other businesses, to be able to bank, said Dean Lim, a spokesman for the male sex worker advocacy group Working Man.

“I’ve been lucky in that I’ve had other careers and jobs and they’ve been linked to other businesses,” he said. “Any money I had I put that directly into my other businesses’ ABN.”

For a long time he didn’t use a bank: “Sex workers are distrusting of financial institutions … Only in the past year [have] I told my accountant what I do.”  

Legislation lacking

Australian Small Business and Family Enterpris­­e Ombudsman Kate Carnell said she was aware of the situation. 

“Fascinatingly, all major banks have decided to do exactly the same thing, but they’re unwilling to give evidence of a problem,” she said. 

Most used the excuse that they had concerns about money laundering (although Westpac recently admitting to 23 million anti-money laundering breaches raises a question of diligence). 

“Banks would be the world’s worst moral arbiters,” Carnell said. ” … These [adult service providers] are legal businesses. They pay tax, they’re registered to comply with all sorts of regulations, and therefore it is totally unreasonable to say they can’t have banking facilities — especially when we’re trying to address the black economy.”  

Sorrenti said his organisation was campaigning to change the anti-discrimination legislation in Victoria.

“Discrimination laws protect protected attributes, a feature of a person, gender and race,” he said. “We’re calling for Victoria to protect against occupation, trade or calling.”

Should sex workers be entitled to the same financial rights as other legal businesses? Let us know your thoughts by writing to [email protected]. Please include your full name to be considered for publication in Crikey’s Your Say section.