Sex workers in the U.K. are facing raids, arrests and prosecution under modern slavery charges for working together to protect themselves from potentially violent clients, according to the English Collective of Prostitutes, a sex worker campaigning group.
An exclusive article in the Independent tells the story of Iris*, a 35-year-old South Korean woman who has been made homeless and now lives in fear of deportation as a result of being put through the criminal justice system.
The price of keeping fellow sex workers safe
Last April, around five police officers, broke down the door of Iris’ flat. They handcuffed her and took her to a police station where she had to wait six hours before being interviewed.
The police released her late at night with no money to get home – they had confiscated her purse and refused to give her any spare change.
She supports other sex workers by calling them before and after they meet with clients. If she doesn’t hear from them or can’t get in contact with them, she calls for help.
This support system is a response to the violence and theft that sex workers often face. Niki Adams, a spokesperson for the English Collective of Prostitutes, says that Iris has likely “saved a lot of women from being robbed and raped” with her calls.
Iris is under investigation for charges of modern slavery and other offenses related to brothel-keeping. She believes the charges are baseless and says that none of the sex workers she helps are trafficking victims.
Nevertheless, the investigation has taken a toll on her mental health and finances. Police have frozen her assets and confiscated her passport. She has had to sell her home.
She has been given no timeline for the investigation and fears it could last years. She worries about being deported over the charges too.
An emerging policing pattern
Iris is one of an increasing number of sex workers who have been placed under investigation by the police, according to the English Collective of Prostitutes.
“Most of these raids are justified by police saying they are cracking down on ‘modern slavery’ but it is migrant sex workers who are harmed,” Ms Adams added.
“The consequences are so serious; even an arrest can bar you from other jobs, let alone a conviction. I have seen so many women who get a conviction in their early 20s and then are stuck in prostitution for the rest of their life because they are barred from other jobs, especially ones that they would be ideally suited to like care jobs.”
Adams explains that there is a pattern emerging of police releasing sex workers under investigation instead of charging them, leaving them in limbo. Meanwhile, they freeze their assets and confiscate their phones, computers, documentation, purses and more, leaving them extremely vulnerable.
Freedom United is concerned about the impact of increased policing on sex workers and victims of trafficking for sexual exploitation. Evidence shows that punitive approaches instil fear and distrust of law enforcement and deter victims from reporting violence and trafficking when it occurs.
Freedom United supports the full decriminalization of sex work as an approach to building resilience to trafficking for sexual exploitation and empowering survivors and sex workers to seek help from authorities without risking criminalization. Learn more about trafficking for sexual exploitation and the decriminalization of sex work here.
*Name has been changed