A Dream of Dignity: Migrant Sex Workers' Rights to Work and Freedom from Forced Labour in New Zealand

AuthorAmy Oliver
PositionJoint recipient of the 2019 Canterbury Law Review Prize
A O*
While interna tional human r ights law recog nises the inhe rent dignity of hu man
beings, full exp ression of human dign ity is reliant on the real isation of human rig hts. is
article con siders how the current reali sation of migrant sex workers’ righ ts to work and
freedom from forc ed labour impacts these worker s’ dignity in New Zealand. It identi f‌ies
that the general v ulnerability of migrants’ e conomic, social and cul tural rights and New
Zealand’s unique t reatment of migrant sex worke rs under s 19 of the Prostitut ion Reform
Act 2003 fail to protect th ese workers’ rig hts, leaving th is community living in fear and
without full di gnity. Legisl ative and poli cy changes addre ssing the vuln erability of
migrants’ econo mic, social and cultura l rights generally and migrant s ex workers’ rights
specif‌ically c ould, howev er, transform thes e workers’ dream of dig nity into a hopef ul
future for this co mmunity. e on us therefore rests o n New Zealand to demons trate its
respect for all ind ividuals’ dignity by tak ing action to realise migran t sex workers’ rights
to work and freedo m from forced labour.
Experience of b eing a mig rant sex worker is l ike you
always have t he fear ins ide you that someone mi ght get to
know and someone m ight inform aga inst you…. So livi ng in a
fear, like I got use d to it.1
1 Sex worker int erviewed in G illia n Abel and Mich ael Roguski M igrant Sex Workers i n New Zealand
(MBIE, 201 8) at 6.
* Joint recipient of the 20 19 Canterbu ry Law Re view Pri ze. LLB( hons)/BA Uni versity of Ca nterbur y
2019, Solici tor at Luke Cu nnin gham Cle re. I would li ke to tha nk my super visor, Ass ociate
Professor Nat alie Bai rd. All vie ws expressed a re my own.
198 [Vol 26, 2020]
I. Introduction
Immig ration New Zea land’s accident al placement of sex work on it s skil led
labour li st in early 2018 moved mig rant sex workers from ig nominy to the spotl ight
in New Zeal and,2 spa rking public interes t in the migrant sex i ndustr y and a f‌lurr y
of media repor ting.3 Removi ng the tr aditiona l secrecy sh rouding t his indu stry
has, however, uncovered t he exploitative conditions experienced by some m igrant
sex workers in New Zea land. On e 2018 art icle reported t hat some New Zea land
migra nt sex workers worked 12-hou r shif ts, seeing mor e than n ine clients a d ay.4
Other medi a reporting and ac ademic research has de scribed incidences of mig rant
sex workers being force d to provide sex ual act s5 or unprotect ed sex with out their
consent6 and bei ng unable to refuse cl ients.7 Brothel manag ers threatened workers
with depor tation if they prot ested8 and man y workers were “too terr if‌ied” to report
their exper iences to police.9
Exploitat ion with in the mig rant sex i ndustr y raises conc erns not only a s a
breach of New Zea land labour law,10 but al so as a limitat ion on migrant sex worker s’
dignit y. Dignity is a fu ndamental princ iple of internationa l human rights l aw.11 The
Preamble t o the Univers al Decla ration of Huma n Right s (UDHR) rec ognises t he
relationsh ip between reali sation of rights a nd dignity, stat ing:12
Whereas reco gnition of t he inherent d ignit y and of the
equal a nd inal ienable rig hts of all mem bers of the huma n
famil y is the foundat ion of freedom, justice and p eace in the
world …
2 Lincoln Tan “‘ Sex worker’ pul led from ski lled employmen t list checker ” e New Zealand Herald
(online ed , New Zealand , 4 May 2018).
3 For example, Linc oln Tan “Mig rant sex workers f‌i nding way s to evade visa c rackdown” e New
Zealand Herald (online ed, Auck land, 14 June 2018); L incoln Tan “Reve aled: Illega l sex workers
access million-dollar health programmee New Zealand Herald (online ed, Auc kland , 31
May 2018); and K ate Nicol-Willia ms “Calls for foreigner s to be able to legall y operate in New
Zeala nd’s sex industr y” One News (online ed, Auck land, 25 Septem ber 2018).
4 Madison Reidy “Il legal mi grant pros titute s too ‘ter rif‌ied’ to re port exploit ation” (18 Marc h 2018)
Stu www.stu.co.nz>.
5 Reidy, above n 4.
6 Abel and Roguski, a bove n 1, at 11.
7 David Allan Ju n-Rong Ting “Under standing t he Experiences of Mi grant Asia n Sex Workers in
New Zeala nd: An Explor atory Stud y” (Masters D issertat ion, Universit y of Auckland , 2018) at 86.
8 Reidy, above n 4.
9 Reidy, above n 4.
10 Such practi ces would be contra ry to a number of prov isions in the Emplo yment Relations Ac t
2000 and t he Prostit ution Reform Act 2 003.
11 Jack Donnel ly Universal Hum an Rights in eor y and Practice (Cor nell Univers ity Press, L ondon,
2013) at 28.
12 Universal Decl aration of Human Ri ghts [UDHR] GA Res 217A (19 48), preamble.

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