"Difficult cases" of sex workers jailed for living together must be reviewed, government warned
Politicians are worried about the "unintended consequences" of a law that punishes sex workers who live together.
Fianna Fáil has called for an anti-prostitution law to be reviewed, because of the consequences it has on sex workers who live together. The main opposition party has suggested that it would be open to considering decriminalising sex workers who live together.
The majority of Irish political parties want the government to review and possibly scrap a law which punishes sex workers who live together under a harsher “brothel keeping” offence which was brought in two yeas ago. Some sex workers may choose to share a flat or a house that they work out of for safety reasons.
It follows a high profile case earlier this summer where two migrant sex workers were both jailed for nine months after they were prosecuted for brothel keeping. One of the women was pregnant when she was jailed.
In 2017, Ireland brought in a controversial new law which made it illegal to pay for sex. Anti-trafficking groups said that the law would help stop prostitution by ending demand for it. Critics of the law, including Amnesty International, said they were worried that the new legislation would make sex work more dangerous for women by driving it underground.
The spirit of the legislation, which is based on similar models used in other countries around the world, is to decriminalise the sex worker and place the threat of prosecution on the person paying for sex instead. But when the law was making its way through the Dáil, the government amended it to double the maximum sentence for brothel keeping from six-months in jail to a year, and double the fine to €5,000.
Sex worker advocates had warned at the time that most of the people who were being prosecuted for brothel-keeping were independent sex workers living together, and that making the sentence more severe would punish sex workers themselves rather than pimps and traffickers.
Some opposition TDs tried to amend the law at the time, to make sure sex workers living together would not be prosecuted. Both the government and Fianna Fáil had voted down the amendment, claiming that it would effectively decriminalise brothels.
Now Fianna Fáil has told JOE that it wants the law to be reviewed, after it allowed the “unintended consequences” of sex workers being jailed for living together.
"A number of difficult cases have arisen in recent months surrounding this piece of legislation. The act seems to have allowed a number of unintended consequences to arise, and I would call on the government to initiate the review of the act as soon as possible. It is important that all new pieces of legislation are reviewed so that, in this case, we can get a handle on the exact number of prosecutions under the various offences before changes are proposed," a spokesman for Fianna Fáil told JOE.
Last November, Gardaí raided a house in Newbridge, Co Kildare where Adrina Podaru, 25 and Ana Tomascu, 20 had been living and working together. Both of the women, who were from Romania, were sex workers and Podaru had been pregnant. No significant amounts of money were found, and when the women appeared before Naas district court this summer the judge told the court that the women had not been “forced into this position.” Both of them were jailed for nine months.
Analysis of by UglyMugs, a sex worker advocacy group, said that migrant women were the most likely to be convicted of brothel keeping. UglyMugs said its review of media coverage and CSO statistics since 2009 found that around 85% of those convicted of brothel keeping had been women, and most had been non-nationals.
When the government passed the anti-sex work law, it included a promise to review it after three years. The Department of Justice has confirmed that the review is due in March 2020, and that it expects the issue of brothel keeping to be raised.
Sinn Féin, Labour, the Green party and People Before Profit told JOE that they believed the review should be used as an opportunity to try to protect sex workers who live together.
Sinn Féin told JOE that it was aware that there was a “lot of concern” that the law wasn’t working the way it was intended to, “and that some vulnerable women have been imprisoned as a consequence.”
“Our intention and the intention of the bill was to tackle the users not those involved in sex work.There needs to be an impact assessment with a view to ensuring that vulnerable women are not put at risk,” a spokesman for Sinn Féin said.
"The government should use the opportunity of this upcoming review to ensure that sex workers who live together for safety reasons are not targeted and the legislative recommendations resulting from this review should be acted on."
The Green Party said that it had warned that prosecuting sex workers who live together was “completely inappropriate,” while People Before Profit said that sex workers will “often come together in groups for security and protection.”
“This should not be a reason why they should be arrested or charged,” the party said.
Sean Sherlock, the Labour Party’s spokesman on justice, said that his party had warned that sex workers would continue to be jailed for living together.
“I would be very hopeful that the minister in reviewing the legislation would put forward an amendment to ensure that any persons right to live with another person would be protected,” Sherlock said.
The Department of Justice said that it is against decriminalising sex workers who live together. It said that there are “concerns that this could create a loophole that could be open to abuse by criminal gangs and others who wish to profit from prostitution.”