A century of sex work

21st July 2003, Comments 0 comments

Ever wondered how much the average prostitute earns per hour? Roberta Cowan reports.



Once used as a stop over for sailors, the port city of Amsterdam is now a stag party hot spot.

Hundreds of sex tourists arrive every week and head immediately to the Red Light District, bypassing the Van Gogh museum, canal tours and the Anne Frank House.

It's true, a trip to Amsterdam today would not be complete without a stroll down the Oudezijds Achterburgwal, meandering through the narrow canals laden with sex toy and porn shops, checking out the red lit windows and the scantily-clad women who work them.

But what led-up to Amsterdam becoming this sex industry centre and what rights are extended to those who work in this profitable tourism draw?

The birth of the sex scene

Prostitution in the Netherlands has been legal for more than a century. Napoleon made it official in 1815 in an effort to control STDs. And the commercial sex scene has been thriving ever since.

Generally accepted by the Dutch who tend to 'live and let live,' taxing prostitution was introduced in 1996.

It is unknown precisely how much the Dutch government collects from the estimated one to two billion euro industry but financial experts have calculated that if all sex workers and brothel owners paid tax, the government would rake in almost 450 million euros annually.

Although selling sex is legal, soliciting and living off the avails of prostitution (running a bordello or being a pimp) has always been illegal despite the dubious affiliations.

There are upwards of 25,000 prostitutes working in the Netherlands and more than half are illegal immigrants according to the Prostitute's Foundation, the Rode Draad (Red Thread).

Until October 2000, a blind eye was cast on the more than 2000 Dutch bordellos, if they were within the red light districts and adhered to strict fire, health and safety standards.

In 1999 the Parliament overturned a 1912 ban on brothels, replacing it with a ban on child and forced prostitution, voting to clean up the oldest profession by legalizing bordellos. The bill was intended to improve the working conditions of prostitutes, reduce crime, increase regulation and above all, tax.

The Red Thread

The Rode Draad foundation has its office on the cusp of the Red Light District in a stunning 18th century canal house. Established in 1984, Rode Draad advocates for all prostitutes or anybody employed in the sex industry in the Netherlands. Their mandate is to emancipate the business of prostitution through changing laws to improve the rights and working conditions of sex workers; educate those in the sex industry about their rights and legal obligations and work to change negative public opinion.

Unionising sex workers

The Rode Draad is helping Dutch prostitutes establish a "professional society", which will be the precursor to joining the biggest union in the Netherlands, the FNV. Similar to a doctor's society with negotiating rights in the medical profession, the prostitutes will work with insurance companies, health and legal authorities, banks and the chamber of commerce to legitimise the sex trade in lawful business circles.

"The professional society will hopefully exist in the new year and then we are on our way to forming the union," Rode Draad spokeswoman Christy ten Broeke said.

The 1.2 million-member FNV has been advising the foundation and offering legal advice. Providing education programs on setting up a business, tax law and accountancy for the self-employed sex worker is part of the FNV support.

Marco van Moort, FNV spokesperson said that it is not clear when the Rode Draad would become full members but that they are in serious, on-going discussions.

"Prostitution is legal work in the Netherlands and the FNV believes that all work is entitled to union representation. We will work for good working conditions and fair salaries for all workers whether legal or not, although the union can only admit members with a legal working status."

More than half the prostitutes in the Netherlands are illegal and do not have EU passports which mean that they could not be union members.

Recruiting union members will be a priority for the Rode Draad in 2002. Through the union, sex workers will be in a position to help standardise contracts between brothel owners and prostitutes, influence legislation on regulation, health and safety and will benefit from tax breaks for expenses like clothes, condoms and sex toys.

When asked how prostitutes would benefit from joining the FNV, the spokesman replied, "As an umbrella group of 14 unions, the FNV is the biggest union in the Netherlands with a strong political lobby as well as solid social standing with governments, business and individuals in this country. Sex workers will benefit having this representation alongside them."

Sex means business

After taxes, a prostitute, on average, earns EUR 7.5 per hour although prices vary enormously. Street prostitution, according to the Rode Draad, is the most independent form of sex work but it is often the most desperate, lowest paid and usually done by illegal immigrants and addicts.

Window workers tend to be self-employed but must rent the space per hour. Earnings from a club or brothel are, generally, split between the owner and the woman. High-end escorts generally make the most money.

Despite the huge amounts of money involved, Dutch banks have been hesitant to let sex workers open business bank accounts. This past summer ING became a target after scores of working women were turned away because of their profession.

The Rode Draad filed a complaint with the national committee for equal treatment on the basis that those unjustly affected by this ING policy were woman. The committee held a hearing but the bank rushed to amend its policy before the results of the committee went public. Now the bank welcomes sex workers and their earnings.

"We consider this a major victory, because in dealing with the insurance companies, tax authorities and the Chamber of Commerce we are in a stronger position. Besides, if the ING will take the money of dictators and weapon companies then why should they refuse the earnings of harmless prostitutes," said Ten Broeke.

The dark side

Despite legalisation and unionisation, the underworld still thrives. Pimps and forced prostitution exists, estimates of 15,000 women work illegally, trafficking of women and girls is rampant and criminality and drugs often run in the same circles.

Illegal immigrants work with the threat of prosecution and deportation and according Casa Migrante, an Amsterdam-based organisation supporting migrant prostitutes, many come to Holland for economic or political reasons and prostitute themselves as a last resort.

Not everyone wants to pay taxes either. Since the ban on brothels was lifted swarms of frugal Dutch prostitutes have moved into the clandestine circuit to avoid paying the 19 percent VAT.

Ironically, bringing the business into the light has, in some cases, pushed more of it underground.

June 2002

Subject: Dutch sex work

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