London Metropolitan University Research Institutes
 
 

ESRC Project: Migrant Workers in the UK Sex Industry

Final Policy-Relevant Report

 

Research Background
In an environment of increasing labour migration, ever more restrictive immigration policy and an increasingly globalised capitalism that favours ‘flexible’, and low paid, workers, migrants have come to form the majority of those who sell sex. Debates on migration and the sex industry are often characterised by an ethnicist anti-migrant discourse, by an almost exclusive focus on women, as well as by a marked emphasis on trafficking and exploitation. In the UK, the Home Office is promoting new prostitution strategies aimed at reducing the exploitation of women by criminalising clients and by introducing potentially arbitrary ways of disrupting or closing down commercial sex premises. By gathering the life histories of migrant women, men and transgendered people working in the UK sex industry the research provides an evidence-based analysis which can contribute to the elaboration of more effective policies and socialinterventions on migration, prostitution, trafficking and social exclusion.

Executive Summary

Interviews with 100 migrant women, men and transgender people working in all of the main jobs available within the sex industry and from the most relevant areas of origin (South America, Eastern Europe, EU and South East Asia) indicate that approximately 13 per cent of female interviewees felt that they had been subject to different perceptions and experiences of exploitation, ranging from extreme cases of trafficking to relatively more consensual arrangements. Only a minority, amounting approximately to 6 per cent of female interviewees, felt that they had been deceived and forced into selling sex in circumstances within which they had no share of control or consent.

Contrary to the emphasis given in current public debates about cases of trafficking and exploitation, the evidence gathered in the context of this project shows a great variety of life and work trajectories within the sex industry, which were influenced by key factors such as: social-economic background; educational aspirations and achievements; immigration status; professional and language skills; gender and sexuality; family history; and individual emotional history. Interviewees were from privileged, average and underprivileged socio-economic backgrounds, from structured as well as problematic families and their experience of education varied between elementary to post-graduate. In the majority of cases, the decision to migrate is based on the perception of a lack of opportunities of personal and professional development at home, with particular reference to the field of education.

Most migrants did not work in the sex industry before coming to the UK and decided to do so after a long string of work experiences in other sectors, which were seen as comparatively less rewarding both in terms of remuneration and of the working conditions offered. The majority of interviewees were introduced to the possibility of working in the sex industry through friends and colleagues they met in other settings and decided to take up the opportunity after they saw positive examples in their everyday lives, both when they were home and in the country of origin.

The stigma associated with sex work was the main problem for almost all interviewees, who felt that it had negative implications for their private and professional lives. Most interviewees complained that they found it difficult to reconcile working in the sex industry and having stable romantic relationships and that having to lead a double life with their partners, families and friends impacted negatively on their wellbeing. A majority of interviewees also underlined the way the stigma associated with sex work was implicated in legitimating violence against sex workers from a small minority of clients and from petty criminals.

Almost all interviewees felt that the most advantageous aspects of their involvement in the sex industry were the possibility of earning considerably more money than in other sectors, the availability of time and the possibility of meeting interesting people, travelling and experiencing new and challenging situations. In most cases by working in the sex industry migrants were able to bridge an important gap in their aspirations to social mobility and felt that they were able to enjoy better living and working conditions.

Most interviewees underlined that they enjoyed respectful and friendly relations with colleagues and clients and that by working in the sex industry they had better working and living conditions than those they encountered in other sectors of employment (mainly in the hospitality and care sectors). The research shows that most interviewees consciously decided to work in the sexindustry and that only a minority felt that they had been forced to. The research findingsstrongly suggest that vulnerability, particularly to trafficking and exploitation, results from migrants’ socio-economic conditions, lack of information about their rights and entitlement to protection in the UK, their personal family and emotional circumstances, but, most of all, from their immigration status in the UK.

Key findings:
  • the large majority of interviewed migrant workers in the UK sex industry are not forced nor trafficked,

  • immigration status is by far the most important factor restricting their ability to exercise their rights in their professional and private lives,
  • working in the sex industry is often a way for migrants to avoid the unrewarding and sometimes exploitative conditions they meet in non-sexual jobs.
  • by working in the sex industry, many interviewees are able to maintain dignified living standards in the UK while dramatically improving the living conditions of their families in the country of origin,
  • the stigmatisation of sex work is the main problem interviewees experienced while working in the sex industry and this impacted negatively on both their private and professional lives,
  • the combination of the stigmatisation of sex work and lack of legal immigration documentation makes interviewees more vulnerable to violence and crime,
  • interviewees generally describe relations with their employers and clients as characterised by mutual consent and respect, although some reported problematic clients and employers, who were disrespectful, aggressive or abusive, 
  • the impossibility of guaranteeing indefinite leave to remain to victims of trafficking undermines the efforts of the police and other authorities against criminal organisations, 
  • most interviewees feel that the criminalisation of clients will not stop the sex industry and that it would be pushed underground, making it more difficult for migrants working in the UK sex industry to assert their rights in relation to both clients and employers,
  • All interviewees thought that decriminalising sex work and the people involved and making it easier for all migrants to become and remain documented would improve their living and working conditions and enable them to exercise their rights more fully.
The research underlines that the current emphasis on trafficking and exploitation to explain the variety of the trajectories of migrants into the UK sex industry risks concealing their individual and shared vulnerabilities and strengths, the understanding of which could form the basis of more effective social interventions.

Conclusion

The main aim of the project was to improve the understanding of the links between the sex industry and migration in the UK, by drawing on the ways in which migrants themselves described their experiences and analysed their histories. The links between the sex industry and migration in the UK are predominantly addressed in current public debates in terms of trafficking and exploitation. Interviews with 100 migrant women, men and transgender people working in all of the main jobs available within the sex industry, and from the most relevant areas of origin (South America, Eastern Europe, EU and South East Asia), suggest that although some migrants are subject to coercion and exploitation, a majority are not. The research shows a great variety of work experiences and life trajectories within the sex industry, which were influenced by key factors such as:

  • social-economic background,
  • family history,
  • educational aspirations and achievements,
  • immigration status and policy,
  • professional and language skills,
  • gender and sexuality,
  • individual emotional history.

Amongst these factors, being able to maintain legal immigration status determines the possibility for migrant sex workers to assert their rights and counter stigmatisation and exploitation. The research strongly suggests that vulnerability, particularly to trafficking and exploitation, results from migrants’ socio-economic conditions, lack of information about their rights and entitlement to protection in the UK, their personal family and emotional circumstances, attitudes towards the police, the availability of personal and professional networks, but, most of all, from their immigration legal status. At the same time, the research shows that most interviewees consciously decided to work in the sex industry and that only a minority felt that they had been forced to. The research underlines that the current emphasis on trafficking and exploitation to explain the variety of the trajectories of migrants into the UK sex industry risks concealing their individual and shared vulnerabilities and strengths, the understanding of which could form the basis of more effective social interventions.

Key Policy Implications 

The project findings show that the measures regarding prostitution and trafficking foreseen by the Policing and Crime Bill 2009 will be seen and experienced by migrant workers as criminalizing their livelihoods as they are not based on shared (between the sex working community and authorities) definitions of what constitutes exploitation in the specific context of the sex industry and of the livelihoods of sex workers. The new measures foreseen by the Policing and Crime Bill 2009 include:

  • the criminalisation of those who pay for sexual services with a second person subject to
    exploitation (Clause 14);

  • orders for sex workers convicted of soliciting (Clause 16);
  • changes to offences of kerb-crawling and soliciting to obtain sexual services (Clause 18)
  • and the closure of premises linked to sexual exploitation (Clause 21 and Schedule 2).

The research evidence strongly suggests that current attempts to curb trafficking and exploitation by criminalising clients and closing down commercial sex establishments will not be effective because as a result the sex industry will be pushed further underground and people working in it will be further marginalised and vulnerable to exploitation. This would discourage both migrants and UK citizens working in the sex industry, as well as clients, from co-operating with the police and sex work support projects in the fight against actual cases of trafficking and exploitation. The interviews informing this research support the view that the success of initiatives against sexual exploitation and the general wellbeing of migrants working in the UK sex industry could be greatly enhanced by provisions that would:

  • make it easier for migrants to become and remain documented and allow the sex industry to operate legally by decriminalising it, including the possibility of legally recruiting sex workers both in the national and in the global labour markets,
  • decriminalise peer-based forms of work organisations, in which a small numbers of sex workers share a working space on an equal basis, along the lines of the ‘mini-brothel’ solution,
  • guarantee victims of sexual exploitation the certainty of obtaining undetermined leave to remain in the UK, regardless of whether they are prepared to denounce their exploiters and to co-operate with criminal investigations, 
  • provide migrants who were exploited with adequate long-term support and protection to successfully integrate within the UK society or, if they so wish, in their countries of origin. This means: not imposing the condition that migrants give up working in the sex industry in order to receive assistance and also providing recreational as well as educational opportunities to migrants assisted by integration programmes.

The research findings analysed in the report, also highlight the following possibilities for intervention:

  • Supporting education and training as well as combating youth unemployment both in the countries of origin and in the UK, in order to offer migrants a wider range of skills and choice of employment opportunities, including in the sex industry, if they so wish,
  • Offering free or subsidised language courses to help migrants negotiate better terms for themselves in their professional and personal lives, within and outside of the sex industry,
  • Encouraging migrant sex workers to reflect on their understanding of love, advantage and exploitation, which could help them to renegotiate their emotional and professional relationships in more rewarding terms.
  • Organising harm-reduction prevention campaigns in the UK and in countries of origin, targeting schools as well as the media and informal youth socialisation places, to make prospective migrants, including men, women and transgender people, more aware of the possibility and consequences of exploitation, as well as of their rights and of the instruments available to them.

While it is important to continue investing resources in the fight against the most extreme forms of exploitation which are present within the UK sex industry, the fact that these correspond to the experience of a minority of migrants means that more resources need to be invested in services and initiatives supporting the majority of the sex working population, including both migrant and UK workers. The findings of the research and the successful implementation of its participative approach reaffirm the importance of sex work support projects developing peer-based initiatives and networks, which have produced long-term relationships of trust between key services and people working in the sex industry. These relationships, if invested upon and safeguarded, could enable:

  • the identification of shared minimum working standards and indicators of exploitation (O’Connell Davidson 2006: 19-20), which could be agreed on and used by practitioners, the police, and the sex working population and inform priorities and protocols of intervention at a national, regional and local level;
  • more efficient forms of co-operation between migrant/UK workers, support projects and anti-trafficking initiatives and projects;
  • participatory initiatives providing migrant/UK workers with a wider range of skills and employment opportunities within and outside of the sex industry.


About the project 

The research team was led by Dr Nick Mai from the Institute for the Study of European Transformations, London Metropolitan University. London was chosen as the main site of the research (selected interviews were undertaken outside of London) because of the scale and diversity of its sex industry and of its migrant population, which offered a great potential to illustrate a variety of links between migration and the sex industry.

The research draws on 100 (67 women, 24 men, 9 transgender) in-depth semi-structured interviews with migrants working in all sectors of the sex industry and from the main areas of origin involved (South America, Eastern Europe, EU and South East Asia). The project adopted a participative ethical approach. The research team included people working in the sex industry and members of organisations representing sex workers. A monetary acknowledgement of subjects’ participation in the research was given.

Dr Nick Mai is Senior Research Officer in Migrations and Immigrations at ISET, the Institute for the Study of European Transformations at London Metropolitan University. His main research interest is on the negotiation of gender and sexual identities in the context of migration of subaltern groups (women, youth, sexual and ethnic minorities) from the Balkans (Albania, Romania) and North Africa (Morocco) into the EU and the associated risks and opportunities, including issues of exploitation and the engagement in illegal or irregular activities.

Final report can be found here

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Related projects

Evaluation of the Services Offered to Migrant Sex Workers in Haringey - SHOC
Haringey's Drugs and Alcohol Action Team (Dr Nick Mai)

Find out more about the project and download the final report SHOC Final Report

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In whose name? Migration, Sex Work and Trafficking

Dr Nick Mai was been awarded funding to hold a public event on 31 October at Londonmet
as part of the ESRC Festival of Social Science 2011.
The Festival objectives are to celebrate the diversity of ESRC research by promoting
and increasing awareness of ESRC and social science, and its impact on UK society
and increase public awareness, understanding and engagement with social science
amongst the UK population, in particular the public and young people.
RES-622-26-367
In Whose Name? Migration, Sex Work and Trafficking

 

Policy and Media impact:

March 2012 - Silence on Violence
Improving the Safety of Women
A report by Andrew Boff

BBC - 31 October 2011
Most London Sex Workers 'Not Trafficked' says study

Metro - 31 October 2011
Prostitutes believe selling sex 'beats doing a menial job' - study

London Evening Standard - 28 October 2011
Majority of sex workers 'not forced or trafficked'

Herald Scotland article 9 October 2011 - Is there really a sex-trafficking epidemic?
http://www.heraldscotland.com/mobile/news/crime-courts/is-there-really-a-sex-trafficking-epidemic-1.1128258

Metro article 6 June 2011 - Showing the pros and cons
metro article.pdf


First Findings 10 July 2009

First Findings-ESRC Migrant Workers in the UK Sex Industry.pdf
Findings of the research informed the parliamentary discussion of the Policing and Crime Bill on 1 July 2009. The transcription of the debate is available online at the following address:

http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld200809/ldhansrd/text/907010007.htm#09070174000134

Guardian article 20 October 2009 - Nick Davies - Prostitution and trafficking – the anatomy of a moral panic
http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2009/oct/20/trafficking-numbers-women-exaggerated

Guardian letters 22 October 2009
http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2009/oct/22/sex-trafficking-crime-bill

UKNSWP (2008) ‘An Academic Response to ‘Big Brothel’, available online:
http://www.uknswp.org/resources%5CAcademicResponseBigBrothelFinSept2008.pdf

View film of 10 July 2009 research presentation of the first findings click here:
mms://streamwm.londonmet.ac.uk/Iset1.wmv


Further information


Email: n.mai@londonmet.ac.uk
Tel: 020 7133 4205 (direct line)

PROJECT FUNDED BY ESRC AWARD RES-062-23-137






 

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