While a large number of sex workers are trafficked and exploited, there are also those who choose that work willingly, a group of NGOs said on Friday, insisting that sex workers must enjoy rights and dignity as any other worker.

Sex work has evolved from simply loitering in the streets at a corner, waiting to be picked up, to the famous massage parlours, and even various online services. The pandemic has certainly contributed further to this digital shift, as workers scrambled to adapt to a no-contact environment, the group said in a statement.

The reaction by Malta LGBTIQ Rights Movement, Allied Rainbow Communities, Aditus Foundation, LGBTI+ Gozo, Checkpoint Malta and Integra Foundation follows comments by Parliamentary Secretary Rosianne Cutajar that the prostitution reform technical committee is drafting a legal framework that aims to decriminalise sex work.

The consultation period is over and the report is in the process of being finalised and presented to Cabinet.

However, according to a coalition on human trafficking and prostitution made up of over 40 entities, no one on the committee has any expertise in the matter.  The National Commission for the Promotion of Equality has also weighed in on the reform, insisting that decriminalising prostitution should be tied to penalising the buying of sex.

On Friday, the six human rights NGOs insisted that if sex workers continued to be treated as lesser beings in society, then the constitution would have failed in its duty to protect all against discrimination and abuse.

"That means giving sex workers agency, and not continuing to treat them all as criminals or simply ‘damsels in distress’. The life of a sex worker is far more complex than that.

"This statement does not ignore the reality of those sex workers who have been trafficked into prostitution.

"Once sex workers have rights and protection, it is the responsibility of legislation and those enforcing it to ensure there are mechanisms in place to offer exit programmes and support for those who need it, as well as harsher action against the pimps," they said, adding that Cutajar’s recent comments seemed to imply that the recommendations for the reform were heading in this direction.

The group is also insisting that sex work and human trafficking should be tackled separately. 

"Human trafficking is a multi-faceted global problem and has to be tackled accordingly but it must have a reform dedicated solely to it, rather than falling under the umbrella of sex work, because forced sex work is just one of the reasons why humans are trafficked."

Why would anyone choose sex work?

For some, whether they are cis or trans-gender, heterosexual or otherwise, sex work could be a way to earn extra money or simply a job just like any other, according to the group.

Discrimination or lack of opportunities in employment, poverty, lack of access to affordable healthcare are some of the reasons why non-EU nationals, undocumented migrants, rejected asylum seekers, other migrants residing here irregularly, and LGBTIQ people might turn to sex work, they said.

"Within the LGBTIQ community alone, globally, sex work was and still is a profession that transgender women turn to due to discrimination in employment and costs of gender-affirming treatment, facing harassment and violence for their gender identity."

However, the NGOs admitted that it is not known whether this is still a reality in Malta, following the various legal protections for LGBTIQ people.

What does it mean to be recognised as a worker?

If sex workers are recognised as workers, then they would be entitled to the same rights and obligations as any other person who works full-time, including health, tax and national insurance contributions.

"Bodily autonomy is inherent to this approach, to empower and destigmatise sex workers. Right now, sex work is criminalised while the buying of sex is not - the sex worker should not be treated like a criminal, whether they are there willingly or by force.

"On the other hand, there are various reasons why a person would seek out a sex worker’s services, not just to exploit," the NGOs said.

The argument put forward against decriminalising sex work and not criminalising the sex buyer is that it will encourage pimps and traffickers to turn Malta into a sex tourism hub, they added.

"Criminalising buyers while decriminalising sex work will only force sex workers to work underground, opening them to further opportunities for violence and make them vulnerable to discrimination and abuse."

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