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“Forced to die”: Garment workers in Rana Plaza Posted by Bernadette on 28 Apr 2013

By: Farida Akhter

Rana Plaza, the eight-storey building housing at least four garment factories in the building’s third to eighth floor, collapsed on the morning of April 24, 2013.  It was not just an accident. The day before, the inhabitants of the buildings saw large cracks developing in the building and the local engineers advised evacuation. Accordingly, the shops on the first floor and a private bank took measures for evacuation. The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers Association (BGMEA) warned the garment factory owners of the building and asked not to open the factory till they gave clearance. The workers were asked to leave in the afternoon of 23rdApril.

But next day, April 24th, the factory management (from third to eighth floor) asked the workers to return to work and threatened to sack or not pay the salary to those workers who would not come to work. The garment workers did not want to come. They were afraid that the building might collapse at any time. Fearing the threat of sacking or losing salary, in the morning, around 8:30 am, more than 70% workers (roughly 3,500), were inside the building. Majority of them were young girls. There was power cut (which is quite normal every day), so the generators were on. The building trembled and within two minutes the building collapsed leaving no space to get out.

Sohel Rana, the owner of Rana Plaza is a close affiliate of a Member of Parliament,Talukdar Murad Jong of the ruling party Bangladesh Awami League, built the eight storey building obtaining the approval for only 5 storeys from the municipal authorities in 2008. He built the building without following any building code, flouting rules and abusing his political clout. There was no one to monitor to see the safety of the thousands of workers working in this building.

Aoshi, a female worker rescued after 36 hours of the collapse said, “Work at the (garment) factory was stopped following discovery of a crack in the building. We were not supposed to come (to work) the following day. But we were asked to come and told that there will be no problem.”  

So it was not an accident, it was simply an organised killing. It can be termed a “Rana-made” killing of the readymade garment workers. As the factory is located in Savar, the suburb of Dhaka, the incident is called Savar Tragedy. Till today (April 28th afternoon) the death toll is 354, recorded as missing 1050 and 2507 rescued live victims. Many are still trapped inside the rubble.  Many of them are in hospitals. Some have amputated hands and legs. Traumatized and saddened by the death of their colleagues, those who are alive, are not able to talk normally. The dead bodies are collected in Odhor Chandra school building, the injured are receiving treatment in Enam Medical Hospital in Savar and in Dhaka hospitals.

The list of the missing is growing longer. The relatives of the victims are carrying photo identities or holding a paper with information about the workers while they are waiting to see those rescued, alive or dead. They have come from outside Dhaka only to find out their sons, daughters, husband, wife, mother etc are dead. They are demanding at least the “dead body” of their dear ones and running from hospital to hospital. “Give us at least the dead body, please so that we will have a grave” – demanded those who gave up hopes of finding their relatives alive.

The victims are mostly young women (between 25 to 30 years) most of them unmarried, newly married or are those having one or two kids below 5 years of age. Mothers of the victims were there to look for their daughters; some of them were looking after the children of these working women.

The dead body of a young garment worker was found with a small piece of paper in her hand. She wrote, “Mama and papa, please forgive me. I will not be able to buy medicine for you anymore. Brother can you look after mama and papa”?

Another woman was crying for help from inside, “I have an infant baby, I have to breastfeed him. Please get me out for the child!”  

These young women and men were all taking responsibilities of their families, so their deaths are a disaster to the family leading the family to poverty. 

Rescue operation  

The Army, Fire Brigade, Red Crescent Volunteers and the local people have been conducting the rescue operation. In fact, the local people comprising of garment workers from other factories, students including students of madrashas, shop owners, day labors, masons, health workers, bricklayers, women and many others  joined their hands to rescue the workers by risking their own lives. These ordinary people and firefighters played an extra-ordinary role by using shovels, handsaws, hammers and other handy tools. They were cutting the walls, grills and floor to pull the victims out of the debris. They did not have any protective gear, wearing slippers, T-shirts, pajamas, jeans or trousers. A few had plastic helmets, but no protective tools.  These volunteers, mostly young people (25 to 30 years), had to rescue both the dead bodies as well as live victims. Those who were alive could not breathe properly because of the air stinking with stench coming from the dead bodies around that started decomposing. Every minute, the volunteers found out the sound of the cry for help from inside among the debris.  With time running out to save those still trapped inside, rescuers dug through mangled metal and concrete finding more corpses.

The survivors were badly dehydrated in stifling humidity and temperatures reaching 35°C in the daytime and about 24°C overnight. Rescuers have been trying hard to make holes in the rubble and send some dry food and water. No one knows whether they could reach them. The ordinary people were coming to help with money, blood donations, food, water, torches for volunteers etc.

Once the victims are rescued, members of other agencies such aa the army took them to hospitals in ambulances. There are, however, complaints from the families of the victims that the authorities were not using their maximum effort with equipment needed for such a rescue operation. 

Apparel factories in Rana Plaza

The building housed five apparel factories. These are: Ether Tex Limited, New Wave Bottoms Limited, New Wave Style Limited, Phantom Apparels Limited, and Phantom Tac Limited, employing about 5000 workers.  Several million shirts, pants and other garments were produced by the Apparel factories in the building per year.

The New Wave companies, according to their website, make clothing for major brands including North American retailers The Children's Place and Dress Barn, Britain's Primark, Spain's Mango and Italy's Benetton. According to Ether Tex, ‘Wal-Mart, the world's biggest retailer, was one of its customers’.

Canadian clothing line Joe Fresh parent company Loblaw and other Western brands had some products made in the building. Loblaw promptly acknowledged its involvement in the plant, and said in the statement that it has vendor standards aimed at ensuring its products are made in a "socially responsible" way, but the company noted there are some gaps when it comes to building safety.

Primark, a major British clothing chain responded promptly in acknowledging that it produced garments in the collapsed factory.

Lack of safety standards

The Savar Tragedy is the worst ever for the country's booming and powerful garment industry, surpassing a fire five months ago that killed 112 and injuring hundreds of workerr which brought widespread pledges to improve worker-safety standards. Since then, very little has changed in Bangladesh, where low wages; $ 38.50  a month, have made it a magnet for numerous global brands and propelled the country to no. 2 in the ranks of apparel exporters.

The export-oriented readymade garment factories have been receiving cash incentives from the successive governments of at least 1 billion Taka ($133 million) but failed to make many of the industries comply with the industry safety standards resulting in frequent fire accidents and loss of lives. Besides the cash incentives, the RMG sector is provided with easy loans and waiving their bank interests etc. Due to failure of the safety standards, there have been deaths of 730 workers (excluding that in Rana plaza) in the past 11 years in building collapses, fires and stampedes. None of the RMG owners were seen to be punished for their irresponsible acts, resulting in the tragic deaths of the poor women of Bangladesh. After every incident, the owners declare compensation to the families of the dead workers but hardly any of those are implemented properly. The injured workers have to live a handicapped life, and are not looked after by the factory management any more. They are just “disposable workers”. 

Thousands of Readymade Garment workers from the hundreds of garment factories across the Savar industrial zone and other nearby areas took to the street on 25th April in different parts of Dhaka city to protest the poor safety standards in the workplaces. They demanded arrest of the building owner Sohel Rana and the factory owners who forced the workers to go into the building knowing about the threat of collapse. Workers  blocked the Dhaka-Mymensingh highway, Dhaka-Tangail highway and Dhaka-Gazipur Road. Another group of thousands of workers gathered in front of the Garment manufacturer’s Association (BGMEA) building seeking the arrest and punishment of those responsible for the workers’ death in Rana Plaza. They said “It’s a pre-planned killing. Workers were forced to go and work in the building. We demand punishment for the garment manufacturers and building owners”.

Latest news is that the police arrested eight people in connection with Rana Plaza collapse in Savar. They have arrested the 3 owners including the Chairman of Phantom Apparel Limited and Phantom Tac Limited, the director of New Wave Bottom Limited and the chairman of New Wave Bottom Limited; also two engineers of Savar Municipality on charge of playing down the danger from cracks that developed in the building on behalf of the owners. However, Sohel Rana, the owner of the building who is also the local leader of Jubo League, could not be traced. 

Last words........

It is difficult to end the story of Savar tragedy. The garment workers are now scared of the buildings. Earlier, they were scared of the gates being locked as they could not get out in time of fire accidents. But they have to work. They have to earn their living by working and looking after their families. Can’t the workplaces be made safe for them? How much does it cost? How much the owners have to reduce their margin of profit to ensure safety of the workplaces? On the other hand, the international buyers talk about compliances but do not want to pay for ensuring the safety standards. It is not enough to campaign as “blood stained” Bangladeshi garments. We have to hold corporations responsible both at national and international levels to ensure safety. Consumers in the western world can come forward to demand safety standards be met, but please do not campaign “stop buying” Bangladeshi clothes. The garment workers need the industry to earn their livelihood. This is the fundamental premise that should not be weakened or shattered. Such campaigns are to the advantage of the multinational corporations who will move from Bangladesh to other countries to repeat the same exploitation of the workers. Earlier campaigns of activists to promote products from least developed countries such as Bangladesh were not  wrong, and we should continue the campaign despite this situation. However, we must now move away from the role of creating ‘consumers’ in the west to more politically engaged campaigns such as forcing the corporate world to be responsible for what happened in Bangladesh. The hands of everyone are stained with the blood of the workers. So every stakeholder must take responsibility.

[The information used in this article is from daily NewAGE, The Financial Express and few Bengali dailies. The interpretations are of the author] 


The Lace Makers of Narsapur by Maria Mies …' a graphic illustration of how women bear the impact of development processes in countries where poor peasant and tribal societies are being ‘integrated’ into an international division of labor under the dictates of capital accumulation.' 

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Writers refuse to bite their tongues... Posted by Maralann on 12 Apr 2013

By Spinifex intern, Veronica Sullivan

The Australian literary community reacted last week with outrage and disbelief to Queensland Premier Campbell Newman’s decision to cancel ‘his’ awards – the QLD Premier’s Literary Awards – after just three weeks in office. Newman’s decision, announced on Wednesday 4th April, raises a litany of issues about his motivations and their ramifications.

The cost saved to Queensland taxpayers, according to Newman, will be $240 000: a $230 000 prize pool, and $10 000 in administration costs. This is only a small portion – less than 0.04 per cent – of the Queensland Government’s 2011-2012 budget. The sum is not a substantial one to the government, but it is to the state’s arts community, as is the retraction of this important avenue of recognition for authors who are often otherwise overlooked.

Outside of the industry, literary news isn’t generally a hot-button political issue. Newman will have been relying on a general disinterest or ambivalence amongst Queenslanders, hoping they would accept his supposed budget-consciousness with no complaints about the long-term cultural ramifications. Ironically and hearteningly, the resulting public outcry in Queensland and around Australia has given the awards and the literary community far more publicity than they would ever have attracted ordinarily.

Newman failed to anticipate the passionate and vociferous response of Queensland’s readers, authors and booksellers, who abhor the possibility of being the only State without a literary awards program. In just over a week, an online petition for the reinstatement of the awards has already garnered over 3000 signatures.

With 14 categories, including an emerging author award for an unpublished manuscript, the Premier’s awards are a valuable platform for publicising new and unheard voices. One of the categories was the lauded David Unaipon Award for best unpublished Indigenous manuscript. Aboriginal writing is underrepresented in Australia generally, and the David Unaipon award is unique.

The premier has been unrepentant about the potential devastation he has released on Queensland’s literary community. Newman says he’ll make “no apologies” for his decision, which ironically comes in the midst of the National Year of Reading. Newman’s election campaign included a commitment to preserving the state’s arts and culture. His retrograde attitude raises worrying echoes of a previous narrow-minded Queensland government – the paradoxical mix of conservatism and institutionalised corruption which ran rampant under Joh Bjelke-Petersen in the 1970s and 1980s.

In the wake of the axing another parallel arises, with Spinifex author Francesca Rendle-Short’s childhood in 1970s Queensland. As relayed in her memoir, Bite Your Tongue, Francesca’s mother, Angel, was an evangelical Christian who campaigned for strict censorship of school English texts and conducted book-burnings. Her targets were books which she perceived as immoral and depraved, including To Kill a Mockingbird, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and the works of Virginia Woolf.

Ironically, from this creatively repressed environment, Francesca grew to become an artist, author, poet and creative writer. She is also Program Director of the Creative Writing degree at RMIT University.

While retracting funding from literature does not equate to condemning or banning it, it does demonstrate a disregard for the importance of the arts which is cause for concern. Francesca has observed the unfolding of these events with sadness. “I really didn't think that Queensland would return to being a one-party state again, but it has,” she says. “I thought we had learned lessons from the past. The LNP's current hold on a 78 seat majority to Labor's 7 seats, without an upper house to oversee the business of government and its policy and decisions, shocks me deeply. All sorts of terrible decisions will now be made with this kind of mandate.

“The other shock is how quick Campbell Newman was to axe the award – after only ten days in office and as one of his first decisions – what will happen in 100 days? Given the decision was made over such a paltry amount, and given the timing, this act of his is acutely symbolic. It says so much about Newman and the LNP's view of literature and writing and reading, and the value of the arts in our community.

“But I also know that in adversity there is hope and life, and that some of the best writing will come out of Queensland over the next term of government. The state will produce writing that is incisive, inspired, inventive, resonant and bountiful."

In the wake of the decision to cancel the awards, the Queensland literary community has rallied. An alliance of booksellers, authors and various industry figures have been vocal in expressing their determination to continue the awards in some form, with or without government support. The group is calling for the awards to be renamed the Queensland People’s Literary Awards, in recognition of their new grassroots nature.

The group is fronted by Krissy Kneen, who has reiterated her opinion that literary prizes are not about the money, but about attaining wider recognition for deserving authors who otherwise go unnoticed. She says, “the most important thing is the kudos of the nomination”. Although authors may welcome financial recognition of their work, money is not generally a prime motivator in the choice a writing career.

In an interview on the ABC Radio breakfast program on Wednesday 4th April, Queensland-raised journalist and writer Matthew Condon confirmed the awards would go ahead without prize money. He said that while sponsorship and monetary prizes are strong incentives, the awards would be given this year without financial recompense for the winners. He stated his hope that “as long as the awards are kept alive in this new form, then one would hope down the track, that patronage is attracted to that”.

As scary as it is to acknowledge that a state government can completely discard its recognition of literature, the reaction around Australia has been passionate and overwhelmingly optimistic. Readers and writers are not prepared to give up on the awards, and judging by these responses their survival is assured, whatever form they may take.

Follow Veronica on Twitter: @veronicaahhh

Francesca Rendle-Short's website:

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Equal rights to school play areas Posted by Maralann on 13 Mar 2013

By Pauline Hopkins

On International Women’s Day I walked my 11-year-old daughter into school, early enough that there was time to play and socialise before the school bell rang to mark the start of lessons. A couple of her friends came bounding up to say hello to her, before declaring that they had been intending to play on the basketball courts but they couldn’t as the boys were there. I pointed out to them that just because boys were playing on the court, it should not mean that they could not play there as well. I was shocked that they seemed surprised at the suggestion. It was a revelation that they were entitled to occupy and claim some of the court space for themselves, rather than allow it to be exclusively for boys just because they were there first.
So I told them a story. A story of my youngest sister who in 1975 was excluded from the kindergarten’s outdoor playground equipment and who was told by the boys to go inside and play with the other girls, playing pretend cooking and quiet indoor games. This single-minded girl refused to comply. So the next day, she decided to become “Peter” for the day, and made my mum help her dress as a boy, with her hair tucked into a cowboy hat. She did not want to be a boy, but she certainly wanted to be allowed to access the exciting, active equipment that the boys had laid exclusive rights to. 
To see my sister’s experience reverberating in 2012 with a new generation and at a progressive modern school, certainly made me think on International Women’s Day. Yes, there are far more pressing and desperate issues facing women around the world-issues of discrimination and exploitation that are causing death, disease, poverty and distress. Yet it is still worthwhile remembering that simultaneously there are little incidents happening everywhere, like this one in the playground, that are sending either overt or implied messages to girls about their place in the world and their power, or lack of it.

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High cholesterol levels and women Posted by Maralann on 06 Mar 2013

Last week The Age reported that cholesterol – lowering drugs increase the risk of diabetes and memory impairment. This is really bad news for around two million Australians who take these medications believing they’ll lower their heart attack risk. While the report is concerning, it is also comforting to know that there is now too much evidence for health authorities to ignore the side effects of statins.

Statins are drugs that block the enzyme in the liver responsible for making cholesterol.But the reality is that every cell membrane contains cholesterol, vital for the production of hormones, cellular repair and overall good health including that of the brain. Medication with statins such as Lipitor, Zocor and Pravachol rob our bodies of cholesterol, crucial for neurological function, so it’s no surprise that there’s an increase in dementia. Rising rates of diabetes are also understandable as cholesterol is required for the regulation of blood sugar levels.

But there is much more to the myth that is the cholesterol story. Dr. Uffe Ravnskov, author of The Cholesterol Myths explains that it all began with the landmark Framingham Heart Study, which followed healthy people in the early 1950s to see who had a heart attack and what distinguished them from the people who did not. High cholesterol was one risk factor–but it was only one of more than 240 others. Ravnskov said that the public health officials and cardiologists, confused a statistical association with causation, resulting in a new disease called hypercholesterolemia, the health issue of the 21st century.

According to researchers Sally Fallon and Mary Enig, many people who feel perfectly healthy suffer from high cholesterol– in fact feeling good is actually a symptom of high cholesterol. Living longer is an effect of high cholesterol with Dr. Harlan Krumholz of the Department of Cardiovascular Medicine at Yale University, reporting in 1994 that twice as many elderly people with low cholesterol died from a heart attack than did elderly people with high cholesterol.

It is pleasing to hear that a recent study has found that clinical and public health recommendations regarding the ‘dangers’ of cholesterol should be revised. This is especially true for women, for whom moderately elevated cholesterol may prove to be not only harmless but even beneficial. ‘High Cholesterol is not a risk factor for women’, says Dr Uffe Ravnskov, but in spite of this many women are being treated for high cholesterol.

The Cholesterol Myths begins with a story about Karla. She was a fit and healthy 62 year old cleaner when she learned she had an elevated cholesterol reading. She was instructed to change her diet and lose weight. ‘I was as fit as a fiddle’, Karla told Ravnskov. Even so she followed her doctor’s orders changing her diet to one of high fibre and using vegetable oils instead of butter and cream. Failing to lose the prescribed weight and unable to lower her cholesterol she was put on medication.  In no time her ravenous appetite had disappeared and her positive demeanour was gone, but her cholesterol was way down.

Karla is not alone. Mary Adams began to notice slurred speech, balance problems and severe fatigue after she had been taking a commonly prescribed statin drug for three years. Her symptoms included loss of sleep due to restless and twitching limbs. She soon began to suffer loss of balance and problems with her gait and her fine motor skills were not what they had been. Once Mary took the next step and ceased taking her regular cholesterol-lowering pill she recovered her previous health.

So if cholesterol isn’t the villain what does cause heart disease? According to researchers Mary Enig and Sally Fallon, heart disease was very rare in 1900 responsible for about 8% of all deaths in the US compared with today’s figures of approximately 45%. The type of heart disease prevalent today is a myocardial infarction, or a heart attack where a blood clot obstructs the coronary arteries with the subsequent death of the heart muscle and is a form of heart disease that was almost unheard of before 1910. By 1950, coronary heart disease was the leading cause of death in the US.

We do need to counteract the high rates of heart disease. But rather than swallowing drugs that interfere with vital cholesterol function we need to adopt healthy lifestyles such as eating fresh foods, not smoking, avoiding pesticides and chemicals and taking up daily exercise.

Helen Lobato 


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Legalised prostitution – a failed experiment Posted by Bernadette on 26 Feb 2013
By: Mary Lucille Sullivan - this article originally appeared on Feministiskt Perspektiv

Should Sweden learn from Australia? In January, Feministiskt Perspektiv published an article where Tara Naja Lykke from Scarlet Alliance was critical towards the Swedish ban on buying sex and stated that there are benefits with the Australian legislation. In a response Mary Sullivan describes the deficiencies in those policies and notes that Scarlet Alliance requires members to share the interests of the sex industry.


Pro-prostitution advocates promote decriminalisation of prostitution as the solution to the massive and largely unregulated expansion of a worldwide prostitution trade where women remain vulnerable to sexual abuse and exploitation. They go further and suggest indeed that the ‘right to work’ in prostitution is a human right fundamental to one’s individual autonomy. Pro-prostitution campaigners dismiss any debate on the issue as moralistic. Through this labeling, they attempt to silence those feminists and social justice activists who understand the prostitution industry as violent and discriminatory, and prostitution as an extreme form of violence. They also dismiss the many voices of prostituted women and survivors of prostitution whose experience rules out any notion that prostitution should be regarded as ‘legitimate work’.


The pro-prostitution lobby frequently cites Australia as an example of the success of the decriminalisation model. Policy regimes across the various Australian states and territories range from a highly regulated licensing approach that exists in the State of Victoria to a decriminalised approach that operates in the State of New South Wales. Here the only restrictions are that brothels must comply with local planning laws and street prostitution must occur in zoned areas. All told, across Australia, the law regards prostitution as legitimate work and brothel owners as business operators; and places minimal restrictions on their promoting prostitution as a professional, profitable business enterprise.i


The Scarlet Alliance presents itself as the peak ‘sex worker’ association in Australia and is a major defender of the pro-prostitution position. Indeed the Association’s membership requires that those who join must agree to its objectives. Members must acknowledge that ‘sex work is a legitimate occupation’. Moreover they must be ‘actively promoting the right to work... including street, brothel, and escort, private and opportunistic work’.ii The Scarlet Alliance undisputedly opposes ‘the development of exit strategies and programs for women who wish to leave the sex industry, particularly trafficked women’.iii


Scarlet Alliance’s platform parallels sex business interests and buyers in its push to have prostitution part of the mainstream economy. It is also in line with Australian governments’ legislative prostitution regimes through which governments benefit through licensing, taxation and prostitution tourism. Perhaps not surprisingly, since 2004, the Scarlet Alliance has received ongoing government funding.iv A spotlight on the Australian experience, however, demonstrates that legitimising prostitution as work exacerbates the harms of prostitution, and produces further harms of its own making.


Project Respect, a non-profit, feminist community-based organisation provides specialist support to women in the sex industry, including women trafficked to Australia. They support the Swedish anti-violence prostitution legislation and recognise the dangers of regarding prostitution as legitimate work. Women at all levels at Project Respect, many of whom have been in the sex industry, work collaboratively to address barriers and structural inequalities for individual women every single day. Further, they work to eradicate the reasons why women need the organisation’s support. Project Respect’s Outreach Coordinator, Shirley Woods, says that based on her nine years of doing outreach work, women who find it empowering or a positive experience are in the minority.v As Project Respect’s Director Kelly Hinton, explains ‘we speak from our experience as an outreach report service, these are the things they see, these are the things that women report to us, and this is our experience’. vi


The expansion and normalisation of prostitution that resulted from Australia’s legitimising the sex industry provided the major justification for the mobilisation of a female ‘workforce’ to supply the trade.vii Under Australian law, prostitution is considered a consensual act between parties where the prostituted woman ‘consents’ to be used sexually by the male buyer. This legal interpretation takes for granted that the social conditions under which men participate in the prostitution transaction are the same as those for women. Legalisation and decriminalisation do not alter the reality that gender inequality in the form of economic vulnerability, which extends to homelessness, remains the prime reason why women ‘choose’ and remain in prostitution.


Project Respect’s outreach work involves many women who have limited life choices when entering prostitution, a reality that does not change because prostitution is called work. Shirley Woods has observed increasing numbers of African women, women from Asian countries, as well as Indian women entering the industry. These women report experiencing difficulty entering the mainstream workforce through lack of skills, little education in their home country, language barriers and racism. Of the women Woods reaches in her outwork programs, she also estimates around 75 per cent are single mothers. Many belonging to this group enter prostitution to earn money to escape domestic violence situations in the home. Seventy-two per cent of the women encountered in the last year have been in housing stress. As well, Woods sees growing numbers of women with bipolar disorders. Another characteristic of those in the industry is the high number of older women who have trouble exiting the industry because of lack of self-esteem that they can do anything else and no career training.viii These are the experiences, constraints and limited options for economic independence or survival which influence many women’s entry into prostitution.


Various state and territory studies support Project Respect’s experience on why women enter and remain in prostitution in Australia. They have highlighted economic and social vulnerability as the most common motivations. A recent Consumer Affairs of Victoria (CAV) report into the Victorian brothel sector, for example, concluded that the major driver for women to enter and remain in prostitution is ‘financial need’.ixProstitution was found to be ‘particularly attractive to mothers raising children alone, to students and other workers whose opportunities for work were limited by lack of skills or training/and or language barriers. Older workers reported facing struggles to maintain earnings’.x Research has also found that young indigenous women are particularly vulnerable to prostitution.xi Supporting international evidence, Australian research also documents a high prevalence of sexual violence in childhood and adulthood amongst women in prostitution and identifies this as a pathway into the sex industry.xii


Australia’s decriminalised/legalised regimes fail equally to support and safeguard women because most prostitution continues to operate illegally, dispelling the myth that women can now ‘work’ in a well regulated and safe prostitution environment. Indications are that illegal prostitution is significantly larger than the regulated sector. Highlighting the problem in the State of Queensland, the State’s Crime and Misconduct Commission prostitution law review confirmed that ‘only about 10 per cent of all prostitution services available in Queensland [where brothel prostitution is legal] are currently operating within the legal brothel system’.xiii There was also evidence that illegal prostitution activities had ‘continued unabated since the implementation of the Prostitution Act, despite the increase in policing activities’.xiv Similar findings have been found for other states and territories.xv


It is also a fiction that a neat distinction can be made between the legal and illegal sectors. Evidence of significant links between these sectors is provided in several major prostitution inquiries. Examples include the Queensland’s (2004) Crime and Misconduct Commission prostitution law review and more recently Consumer Affairs Victoria 2009 inquiry into brothels.xvi Currently New South Wales is examining reworking its decriminalised prostitution regime. The Government’s objectives include to clamp down on the use of brothels by organised crime groups and to ensure legal brothels comply with the law; this is in addition to closing illegal brothels.xvii In this erratic environment, women move between licensed and unlicensed brothels and/or street/escort prostitution. In the Victorian instance, it is estimated that around 50 per cent of prostituted women have worked in at least three sectors, including legal and illegal.xviii


For the few women who do work in a legal context, occupational health and safety (OHS) standards are seriously inadequatexix. Australia’s OHS strategies for prostitution businesses are unambiguously focused on containing the spread of sexually transmitted infections (STIs), particularly in brothels. Compulsory testing for prostituted women is implied under most Australian prostitution legislation. By ignoring the male buyer, governments not only discriminate against women, but also help create the perception that they are the purveyors of disease.


All women have the right to have access to prophylactics to protect their reproductive health. OHS for prostitution businesses makes provision for this. In practice, however, the implementation by brothel owners of OHS guidelines is inconsistent and health inspections in brothels are irregular. More critical still is that the provision of condoms to women made vulnerable to sexual exploitation through poverty, racism and gender disparity does not work to protect their health. Shirley Woods makes this point. She has found that ‘there has always been a demand from clients for oral sex without condoms…this demand is increasing despite education about HIV as is anal sex’. The problem is aggravated because of the normalisation of pornography in brothels. While brothels are required by law to have a sign regarding safe sex they will also having running ‘anal porn, group porn and porn without condoms’ says Woods. With increasing competition, older women have difficulties getting bookings and language barriers which make negotiation with a buyer impossible, such demands are frequently met.xx


The most significant failure of Australia’s OHS for women in prostitution it that is assumes that women are always able to negotiate safe sex, despite the power imbalance inherent in the prostitution transaction. This power inequity between a prostituted woman and the buyer is starkly evident in the risk prevention strategies prostituted women require to simply survive where violence is recognised as ‘an inherent risk of the job’. These include panic buttons, video surveillance to screen clients and, when these fail, self-defense courses and expertise in negotiation skills and hostage skills. This places the emphasis more and more on the individual, necessary because no OHS strategies can create a safe and healthy work environment when everyday prostitution ‘work practices’ and the prostitution ‘work environment’ are innately harmful.


The harm inherent in prostitution ‘work’ practices and the prostitution ‘work’ environment is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that OHS guidelines list STIs, unwanted pregnancies, sexual harassment, physical violence, abuse and rape as specific health risks whether prostitution is legal or illegal.


Sex trafficking has also not disappeared under Australia’s ‘model’ prostitution laws and granting women working visas to work in the industry will not solve this alarming practice. Establishing the scale of trafficking is extremely difficult, and available statistics often take no account of women and girls who are trafficked domestically, that is between states and territories, as this is largely undetected. Project Respect estimates that about 2000 people per year are trafficked although they believe that realistically the number is much higher.xxi Victoria’s Drugs and Crimes Convention Committee in its (2010) inquiry into sex trafficking also noted concerns ‘that the illicit trade in women for sexual purposes is increasing’.xxii


There are serious limitations of approaches to tackle trafficking that focus only on the ‘means of delivery’ rather than into the sex industries into which they are delivered. One of the most crucial factors in understanding the link between prostitution and the importation of women from abroad is the existence of a legal market. The United States Trafficking in Persons (2004–10) reports has consistently identified Australia as a destination country for women and children trafficked for prostitution, with the numbers reported proportionate to population. Prostitution businesses where these women and girls are prostituted are generally the same operations as where Australian women are prostituted. The legal and social acceptance of prostitution in most states and territories makes Australia an attractive option for traffickers.


Another question is whether legalisation assists in the discovery or care of victims, or if it can hamper policing. The ongoing assumption by much of Australia’s law enforcement system is that criminal activity, including sex trafficking, is associated with the illegal brothel trade. However, there is evidence that there is a clear and close connection between sex trafficking and the legal prostitution sectors. This fact is highlighted in both the Commonwealth inquiry into sex trafficking (2003) and the more recent Victorian Drugs and Crime Prevention Report (2010).xxiii To date, all cases of trafficking that have been prosecuted have involved legal brothels. This is also the case with the trafficked women that Project Respect assists, where the cases do not come before the authorities.xxiv


A further problem in the discovery and care of victims is the restrictions on policing the legal sector. As a legal entity, brothels are mainly considered a planning issue and police have minimal rights to enter the premises. This difficulty is explained by Project Respect’s Kelly Hinton. ‘One of the issues for the police is that when they go into a brothel and they may meet a women who is trafficked…she is here legally, working within her rights….unless she actually says to the police this is not okay, this is what they have done to me…say they are there for 2 hours, unless she builds up the trust in 2 hours, …chances are they male, she has been told the police are corrupt, the police in her country are corrupt...there is nothing they can is all based on the victim, on her being able to come forward and say this is what has happened to me’.xxv


Hinton sees serious limitations to the idea that ‘sex work visas’ would minimise the incidence and harms of sex trafficking. As she points out ‘firstly, most trafficked women are not illegal but are here legally and working legally’. (Many for example, have student visas). ‘Additionally most of the women we have met that are trafficked have come from countries where prostitution is illegal so how could they apply for a visa in their home country’. Hinton’s most significant argument, however, is that granting ‘“sex work visas” doesn’t take into account the deception and the reason they were trafficked’. Finally ‘how can you decide on something like a “sex work visa” when there is so much debate about whether that “work” is safe or not? It is based on the argument that “sex work” is fine and there a plenty of women in prostitution who think it is not’.xxvi


This continuing importation of women for prostitution including trafficking is perhaps one of the more overt demonstrations that violence and exploitation against women in prostitution has not been reduced under legalised/decriminalised systems.


Mary Lucille Sullivan is an author and public policy consultant. She has lectured extensively and provided policy advice on Australia’s experience in relation to prostitution, both in Australia and internationally. Mary’s many publications on prostitution include Making Sex Work: A Failed Experiment with Legalised Prostitution (Melbourne: Spinifex, 2007). Most recently she published ‘Legitimizing Prostitution: Critical Reflection on Policies in Australia’ in M. Coy (Ed) Prostitution Harm and Gender Equality (London: Ashgate, 2012) 



i The exceptions are the States of Western Australia and South Australia where currently, while prostitution itself is not illegal, associated activities such as brothel keeping and soliciting are criminalised.


ii Scarlet Alliance. Objectives. Available at (Last Accessed 4 February 2013).


iii Scarlet Alliance. Response to Victorian Recommendations for Trafficking into Sex Work 2010. Available at (Last Accessed 4 February 2013).


iv Scarlet Alliance. Scarlet Alliance History. Available at (Last Accessed 4 February 2013).


v Mary Sullivan. (2013). Interview with Kelly Hinton (Director) and Shirley Woods (Outreach Coordinator) Project Respect. (29 January) Melbourne.


vi Ibid.


vii For further discussion of this development see Mary Sullivan, (2007), Making Sex Work (Spinifex), chapter 4.


viii Ibid, Sullivan, Interview Project Respect.


ix (Pickering, S., Maher, J.M. and Gerard, A. (2009) Working in Victorian Brothels: An Independent Report Commissioned by Consumer Affairs Victoria into the Victorian Brothel Sector. Available at (Last Accessed 4 February 2013).


x Ibid, p.v


xi Holmes, C. and McRae-Williams, E. (2008) An Investigation into the Influx of Indigenous ‘Visitors’ to Darwin’s Long Grass from Remote NT Communities –Phase 2. National Drug Law Enforcement Research Fund. Accessed 4 February 2013).


xii Crime and Misconduct Commission (2004) Regulating Prostitution: An Evaluation of the Prostitution Act 1999. Queensland: Crime and Misconduct Commission.


xiii Ibid, p.xii


xiv Ibid, p.80


xv See for example, Municipal Association of Victoria, ‘Councils Need More Support to Deal With Illegal Brothels’, Media Release 25 January (Melbourne 2007). Available at (Last Accessed 4 February 2013).


xvi Ibid, Crime and Misconduct Commission; Pickering et al.


xvii Roth, L. (2011).Regulations of Brothels: an update E-Brief (15 February). New South Wales Parliamentary Research Library Service. Available at$File/E-brief.regulation+of+brothels.pdf (Last Accessed 4 February 2013).


xviii Ibid, Pickering et al., p.v


xix The application of OHS for the prostitution industry is dealt with in depth in M. Sullivan (2007) Making Sex Work (Melbourne: Spinifex), chapters 8 and 9.


xx Ibid, Sullivan, Interview Project Respect.


xxi Ibid, Sullivan, Interview Project Respect.


xxii Drugs and Crimes Convention Committee (2010) Inquiry into People Trafficking for Sex Work: Final Report. Melbourne: Parliament of Victoria, p.3.


xxiii See Ibid., and Commonwealth of Australia (2003) Trafficking in Women for Sexual Servitude. Joint Committee on the Australian Crime Commission, 18 November 2003. Melbourne.


xxiv Ibid, Sullivan, Interview Project Respect.


xxv Ibid, Sullivan, Interview Project Respect.


xxvi Ibid, Sullivan, Interview Project Respect.



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