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Migrant work conditions

In this section, the work conditions reported by migrant sex workers are examined, including where they were working, their workload, condom use, incidents of restricted workplace rights (such as being forced to take clients), experiences of abuse within the workplace and the provision of support, payment conditions and other workplace arrangements. Differences in work conditions between migrant and non-migrant respondents and where these coincided with differences in work satisfaction are also explored.

Workplace type

Survey respondents were asked to indicate the types of workplaces in which they were currently working using a multiple-choice list of workplaces developed by Scarlet Alliance (2011). This included:

  • a brothel—fixed-site, managed business with multiple workers providing full service (sex);
  • a BDSM house—fixed-site, managed business with multiple workers providing bondage, discipline and/or sadomasochistic services;
  • a massage parlour—fixed-site, managed business with multiple workers providing erotic and/or sensual and/or nude massage;
  • an escort agency—managed business with multiple workers providing sexual services at a location arranged by the client;
  • a street-based worker—person who solicits clients in a public space for sexual services; and
  • a private worker (escort and/or in-call)—person who works independently of any third party or business, in a private setting determined by either themselves or their client.

Respondents who selected at least one of the following options—brothel (full service), BDSM house, massage parlour or escort (agency)—were categorised as a non-private worker. These workplace types have employers, whereas the other workplace options reflected arrangements where the respondent was self-employed. Those who did not select at least one of these options were categorised as private workers Although in some cases street-based workers may be working to a third party, it has been suggested that this scenario may not be common in Australia (Donovan et al 2012), and due to the inability to distinguish between those who work alone and those who work to another person, they were categorised as private workers.

The majority of both migrant and non-migrant respondents worked non-privately (Table 13). This proportion reflects that measured by the New Zealand survey of migrant sex workers, with 70 percent (n=87) indicating that they had a boss (Roguski 2013). When examined by workplace type, migrants were significantly more likely than non-migrants to be working in a massage parlour and less likely to be working in a brothel (Table 12).

Table 12 Workplace type and status by migrant status (%)
Migranta Non-migrantb Significance testing
Worker statusc
Private 21 14 ns
Non-private 79 86
Total (n) 402 148
Workplace type
Brothel (full service) 56 77 Yates adj χ(1)=18.54**
BDSM house 1 2 frequencies too low
Massage parlour 24 10 Yates adj χ(1)=11.85*
Escort (agency) 3 6 ns
Street-based 1 5 frequencies too low
Private (escort) 9 14 ns
Private (in-call) 18 14 ns

* p<0.001

**p<0.0001

ns: not significant

a: Excludes 10 migrant respondents who did not respond to the question on workplace type

b: Excludes 3 non-migrant respondents who did not respond to the question on workplace type

c: Percentages may not add to 100 due to rounding

Note: Respondents who selected ‘other’ workplaces were excluded due to low numbers. Only one non-migrant and two migrant respondents selected ‘other’ workplaces to the exclusion of the workplaces provided as a multiple response choice option. Respondents could select multiple responses to the question on workplace type

Source: AIC, Sex Worker Migration and Vulnerabilities to Trafficking 2010 [computer file]

Workload

There was no significant difference between migrant and non-migrant respondents in the amount of days and hours worked during the week. The largest proportion of migrant and non-migrant respondents worked six to 10 hours per day, three to four days per week (Table 13). The number of hours worked were similar to those reported by New Zealand migrant sex workers (with the largest group working 6–10 hours a day) although more days were worked (44% working 5–6 days a week; Roguski 2013).

There was a small group (n=19) of migrant and non-migrant respondents who worked extreme hours. An extreme workload was categorised as when a respondent:

  • worked more than 10 hours a day, more than five days a week and saw 50 or more clients a week; or
  • was on-call 24 hours, worked more than five days a week and did not select a private workplace.

There was no significant difference in the respondents’ level of satisfaction with the number of clients they were seeing (see Figure 15).

Table 13 Workload by migrant status (%)
Migrant Non-migrant
Hours worked per daya
1–6 29 24
6–10 38 45
10 and over 31 29
On-call 24 hours 3 3
Total (n) 403 148
Significance testing ns
Days worked per weekb
1–2 19 24
3–4 42 45
5–6 27 24
7 12 7
Total (n) 403 148
Significance testing ns
Clients seen per weekc
9 or less 32 33
10–19 29 40
20–29 24 16
30–39 8 8
40 or mored 7 4
Total (n) 390 143
Significance testing ns

ns: not significant

a: Excludes 9 migrant respondents and 3 non-migrant respondents who did not respond to this question

b: Excludes 9 migrant respondents and 3 non-migrant respondents who did not respond to this question

c: Excludes 22 migrant respondents and 8 non-migrant respondents who did not respond to this question

d: Combines the categories 40–49 and 50 or more for the purpose of analysis due to small numbers. Five migrant respondents who selected 40–49 were missing the category 50 or more due to a survey print error

Figure 15 Are workers dissatisfied with the number of clients seen, by migrant status (%)

Migrants: n=393

Non-migrants: n=146

a: Excludes 19 migrant respondents who did not respond to this question

b: Excludes five non-migrant respondents who did not respond to this question

Source: AIC, Sex Worker Migration and Vulnerabilities to Trafficking 2010 [computer file]

Charges, payment and contract conditions

Survey questions regarding payment conditions, workplace charges and the freedom to refuse clients are relevant only to those working in at least one non-private workplace. Therefore analyses of these questions are restricted to the responses of non-private workers.

Sex workers can be charged by their employer for items or services used in the workplace. Most non-private sex workers incurred some form of charge from their employer; only 12 percent (n=45) of non-private respondents who answered the question specifically stated that their workplace did not charge them for anything. For those who did have workplace charges, half indicated they commonly incurred just one workplace charge (51%, n=166), with 30 percent indicating they received more than two workplace charges (n=96).

Although there was no significant difference between migrant and non-migrant respondents as to the number of charges imposed, the nature of the charges did differ by migrant status (Table 14). Migrant respondents were significantly more likely to be charged for food and clothes and significantly less likely be charged a shift fee. An estimate of shift fees from a 2001 study of the Victorian sex industry calculated a fee of $5–10 a shift or $45–50 a week (Murray 2003).

The workplace charge most likely to be incurred for both migrant and non-migrant sex workers was for condoms. Fifty-four percent of migrants and 53 percent of non-migrants were charged for condoms by their workplace.

Table 14 Workplace charges for non-private workers by migrant status (%)
Migranta Non-migrantb Significance testing
Rent/board 28 24 ns
Shift fee 19 46 Yates adj χ(1)=21.19**
Cleaning fee 10 7 ns
Work clothing 23 7 Yates adj χ(1)=10.14*
Food 47 21 Yates adj χ(1)=16.82**
Condoms 54 53 ns
Transport (eg the use of a car) 27 22 ns
Other 9 13 ns

* p<0.01

** p<0.0001

ns: not significant

a: Percentages calculated from the total number of migrant respondents who responded to the question on workplace charges (n=222), excluding 63 migrant respondents who did not respond to this question and 33 migrant respondents who indicated they are not charged for anything by their workplace

b: Percentages calculated from the total number of non-migrant respondents who responded to the question on workplace charges (n=87), excluding 28 non-migrant respondents who did not respond to this question and 12 non-migrant respondents who indicated that they were not charged for anything by their workplace

Note: There was a high non-response rate to this question (23%), and hence results need to be treated with caution. The non-response rate of migrant and non-migrant respondents working in at least one non-private workplace was not significantly different. Respondents could select multiple responses for the question on workplace charges

Source: AIC, Sex Worker Migration and Vulnerabilities to Trafficking 2010 [computer file]

The majority of migrant and non-migrant workers who were working in a non-private workplace indicated that they were paid regularly:

  • 90 percent (n=282) of migrant respondents (excluding five respondents who did not respond to the question); and
  • 96 percent (n=119) of non-migrant respondents (excluding 3 respondents who did not respond).

Those who were not paid regularly were asked when they were paid and the reasons for this arrangement. For the respondents who replied (n=18), explanations included that they were paid per client/job, the number of clients at the time of the survey had been low or they worked irregularly by choice. Charging per client/job is indicative of subcontracting arrangements commonly observed within the sex industry (Murray 2003).

There was no significant difference in the proportion of wages migrant and non-migrant respondents received directly from their earned income, with only two percent of migrants and one percent of non-migrants indicating that they received less than half (see Figure 16). Migrants were significantly more satisfied with their income than non-migrants (Table 15); however, migrants were also significantly more likely to be unsure of whether they were satisfied. The majority of migrant respondents (85%) stated that their current income was much better or a little better than what they would receive in their home country (Table 16). Just four percent (n=13) indicated that their income was much worse than what they received in their home country. Of these 13 respondents, eight migrants listed their home country as South Korea (7 were born there, 1 was born in China), two were from Thailand (1 born there, the other born in China), one from Australia (but born in China), and one stated that their birth and home country was Ireland. The remaining migrant respondent did not respond to the question on home country, but listed their birth country as South Korea.

Figure 16 Proportion of wage received by non-private workers by migrant status (%)

a: Excludes 126 migrant respondents who worked in at least one non-private workplace and did not answer this question

b: Excludes 50 non-migrant respondents who worked in at least one non-private workplace and did not answer this question

Note: This question had a high non-response rate (36%) and there are limitations to this question, as noted in the methodology section of this report. Therefore caution must be taken in interpreting these results. The difference in non-response rates did not significantly vary between migrant and non-migrant respondents. Percentages may not add to 100 due to rounding

Source: AIC, Sex Worker Migration and Vulnerabilities to Trafficking 2010 [computer file]

Table 15 Income satisfaction (%)
Are you satisfied with your income in Australia? Migranta Non-migrantb
Yes 76* 64*
No 12* 32*
Don’t know 13* 4*
Total (n) 401 69

χ(2)=21.0, p<0.001

* adj res outside +/–1.96

a: Excludes 11 migrant respondents who did not respond to this question

b: Excludes 82 non-migrant respondents who did not respond to this question

Note: The question on income satisfaction had a high non-response rate (16%) and non-migrants were significantly less likely to answer the question than migrant respondents. Therefore migrant status comparisons may not be valid

Source: AIC, Sex Worker Migration and Vulnerabilities to Trafficking 2010 [computer file]

Table 16 Migrant respondents’ comparison of current income with income in home countrya
Much worse 4
A little worse 3
About the same 8
A little better 30
Much better 55
Total (n) 366

a: Excludes 46 migrant respondents who did not answer this question

Note: The question on comparison of current income with income in a home country had a slightly high non-response rate (11%); therefore, results may not be representative of the migrant sample

Source: AIC, Sex Worker Migration and Vulnerabilities to Trafficking 2010 [computer file]

Respondents were also asked how their working conditions compared with their contract terms. A contract within sex work generally:

...refers to verbal and/or written agreements that may or may not conform to Australian Contract Law. For this research and generally within sex worker understandings of a contract, this refers to a promise or set of promises between two or more parties. These may or may not be legally binding often due to the transnational nature of the contract and the laws around sex work in the state and territory the sex worker is working in. (Scarlet Alliance 2011: np)

Migrants were significantly less likely than non-migrants to have never been on a contract and more likely to state that their current work conditions were better than their contract terms (Figure 17). A small number (n=6) stated that their working conditions were worse than the terms of their contract. The number of migrant respondents who indicated that they were currently on a contract was higher than that measured among Asian language-speaking sex workers in the SSHC survey. However, the limitations surrounding this question (see methodology section) may have conflated those who were currently on a contract with those who had ever been on one.

Figure 17 Working conditions compared with contract terms by migrant status (%)

χ(3)=9.35, p<0.05

Migrant: n=280

Non-migrant: n=125

a: Excludes 132 migrant respondents who did not respond to this question

b: Excludes 26 non-migrant respondents who did not respond to this question

Note: There was a large non-response rate to this question (28%), and migrants were significantly less likely than non-migrants to answer the question on contract conditions in Australia; therefore, migrant status comparisons may not be valid

Source: AIC, Sex Worker Migration and Vulnerabilities to Trafficking 2010 [computer file]

Workplace rights

Survey questions on workplace rights were limited to whether respondents were allowed to refuse clients, their knowledge of rights around the issuance of fines by their employer, and restraints on their ability to leave their place of work. There was no observable difference between migrant and non-migrant respondents regarding whether their workplace allowed them to refuse clients. A small number (see Figure 18) who worked in at least one non-private workplace indicated that they were not allowed to refuse clients. Three respondents who did not select a non-private workplace stated that they were not allowed to refuse clients. One was a street-based worker (non-migrant), another private (in-call, migrant) and the last worked in an unidentified ‘other’ workplace (non-migrant). The New Zealand survey indicated that five percent (n=6) of migrant respondents were not allowed to refuse clients by their workplace (Roguski 2013).

Figure 18 Refusal of clients (non-private workers) (%)

Migrant: n=309

Non-migrant: n=122

a: Excludes 9 migrant respondents who worked in at least one non-private workplace and did not answer this question

b: Excludes 5 non-migrant respondents who worked in at least one non-private workplace and did not answer this question

Source: AIC, Sex Worker Migration and Vulnerabilities to Trafficking 2010 [computer file]

Overall, both migrant and non-migrant respondents displayed knowledge of their rights regarding fines and freedom to leave their workplace. There was no significant difference between migrant and non-migrant responses to these two scenarios (Table 17). The small proportion of migrant respondents who believed it was legal for bosses to fine them for taking a day off or to try to stop them from leaving their job if they wanted to was reflected in the New Zealand survey responses (ie less than 10 percent of migrant respondents answered in the affirmative for each scenario; Roguski 2013).

Table 17 Knowledge of workplace rights by migrant status (%)
Migrant Non-migrant
Is it legal for your boss to fine you if you take a day off work? (Part 1)
Yes 6 9
No 88 85
Sometimes 6 6
Total (n)a 362 141
Is it legal for your boss or anyone else to stop you from leaving your job if you want to? (Part 2)
Yes 8 10
No 89 89
Sometimes 3 1
Total (n)b 360 142

a: Excludes 50 migrant respondents who did not respond to Part 1 of the question on workplace rights, including 7 due to survey print error, and 10 non-migrant respondents who did not respond to Part 1 of the question on workplace rights

b: Excludes 52 migrant respondents who did not respond to Part 2 of the question on workplace rights, including 7 due to survey print error; excludes 9 non-migrant respondents who did not respond to Part 2 of the question on workplace rights

Note: Percentages may not add to 100 due to rounding. The question on workplace rights had a slightly high non-response rate (11%). Migrants were significantly less likely than non-migrants to answer Part 1 and Part 2 of the question on workplace rights; therefore, migrant status comparisons may not be valid

Source: AIC, Sex Worker Migration and Vulnerabilities to Trafficking 2010 [computer file]

Access to passport

Although not theoretically a workplace right, the survey asked respondents whether they had easy access to their passport, as the confiscation of passports by employers is considered an indicator of exploitation related to human trafficking and slavery-like practices (see ILO 2009). Of all migrant responses (n=400, 12 missing responses), eight percent (n=32) did not have easy access to their passport. The proportion of migrant respondents who indicated they did not have easy access to their passport was similar to the proportion of those who did not keep their own passport as measured in the Sydney Sexual Health Survey among Asian language-speaking workers (7%).

The same question was asked of migrant respondents in the New Zealand survey, with four percent (n=5) indicating that they did not have easy access to their passport (Roguski 2013). Details of why they did not have access to their passport, however, were not collected and hence it is not possible to identify the circumstances around this lack of access. Situations where a respondent’s passport has been forcibly confiscated may be conflated with consensual arrangements to keep it in a safe or safety deposit box.

Experience of abuse and provision of support in the workplace

Respondents were asked whether they had experienced a range of positive and negative situations or actions at work, and whether these situations involved their boss, receptionist, co-workers, sex worker organisations or government agencies (police, DIAC or other agencies). Clients were excluded from these questions as the focus was on the internal working environment.

Where negative workplace situations were experienced by respondents, their boss, receptionist or co-workers were most frequently identified as the primary perpetrators. These results demonstrate that the perpetrators of the abuse and violence sex workers experience while working are not restricted to clients. A sizeable proportion of both migrant and non-migrant respondents experienced verbal abuse and/or threats. It is encouraging, however, to observe that a large proportion of both migrant and non-migrant respondents experienced all of the positive situations and actions listed. Migrant respondents were significantly less likely than non-migrants to report having experienced verbal abuse, verbal threats of violence and threats to hurt family (Table 18). When considering positive workplace experiences, migrant respondents were also significantly less likely than non-migrants to identify that they received support, information, free condoms and access to sexual health services or worked in a safe workplace environment (Table 18).

It should be noted that this analysis was affected by a high degree of missing responses, with migrant respondents significantly less likely than non-migrants to answer this question. There are many reasons why this may be the case. It may demonstrate that migrant respondents were significantly less likely to experience any of the situations/actions listed, both positive and negative. It may also reflect a reluctance to disclose workplace experiences, particularly those involving abuse or violence.

Table 18 Positive and negative workplace experiences by migrant status (%)
Migranta Non-migrantb Significance testing
Positive workplace experiences
Visit from a sex worker organisation 52 54 ns
Support 54 78 Yates χ(1)=18.99****
Safe workplace environment 41 80 Yates adj χ(1)=49.14****
Information 43 69 Yates adj χ(1)=22.66****
Free access to condoms 56 70 Yates adj χ(1)=6.10*
Access to sexual health services 50 72 Yates adj χ(1)=15.21***
Negative workplace experiences
Verbal abuse 31 47 Yates adj χ(1)=9.19**
Verbal threats of violence 11 21 Yates adj χ(1)=7.20**
Physical violence 6 9 ns
Threats to hurt family 3 9 Yates adj χ(1)=5.57*
Sexual assault 3 7 ns
Threats of deportation 5 2 ns

* p<0.02

** p<0.01

*** p<0.001

**** p<0.0001

ns: not significant

a: Percentages calculated from the total number of migrant responses to the question on workplace experiences (n=271), excluding 141 migrant respondents who did not respond to this question

b: Percentages calculated from the total number of non-migrant responses to the question on workplace experiences (n=121), excluding 30 non-migrant respondents who did not respond to this question

Note: The question on workplace experiences had a high non-response rate (31%); therefore, results should be interpreted with caution. Migrant respondents were significantly less likely to answer this question than non-migrants; therefore, migrant status comparisons may not be valid. Respondents could select multiple responses to the question on workplace experiences

Source: AIC, Sex Worker Migration and Vulnerabilities to Trafficking 2010 [computer file]

Condom use

The use of condoms in a workplace setting is used as an indicator of a sex worker’s capacity to negotiate work conditions, both with the client and with their employer. Sex workers with a controlling employer may ‘hesitate to…negotiate safer sex out of a fear of further violence or loss of economic support’ (Watts, Zimmerman & Roche 2006: 221).

The majority of both migrant and non-migrant respondents indicated that they always used condoms at work (95% and 97% respectively; Table 19), supporting the results of previous research on condom use by sex workers (Donovan et al. 2010b; Harcourt et al. 2001; Seib, Fischer & Najman 2009). The survey question specifically asked ‘Are there reasons why you wouldn’t use condoms while working?’ As respondents could select more than one response for this question, some respondents selected ‘none—always use condoms’ in addition to reasons why they would not. The hypothetical framing of the question may have contributed to this type of response. Respondents may have been trying to indicate that they have always used condoms at work, but that there may be hypothetical situations in which they might not use them.

The responses selected by those who did not indicate they always used condoms at work may be based on personal experiences rather than hypothetical situations. The five percent of migrants (n=17) who answered the question and did not select the option ‘I always use condoms’ selected the following reasons for why they would not use condoms at work or for a particular client/job (as identified by options selected or specified in the ‘other’ option):

  • they only do massage, not sex (n=2);
  • the customer will not be happy (n=2);
  • condoms are not necessary (n=2);
  • they can charge more money without condoms (n=6); and
  • the boss says not to use condoms (n=7).

The three percent (n=5) of non-migrant respondents who did not indicate that they always use condoms at work provided the following reasons:

  • condoms are not necessary (‘only do massage’) (n=1);
  • they only use condoms for full service (n=1); and
  • they can charge more money without condoms (n=3).
Table 19 Reasons why respondents would not use condoms at work (column %)
Are there reasons why you wouldn’t use condoms while working?
Migranta Non-migrantb
None—always use condoms 95 97
Condoms not necessary 1 1
Customer will not be happy 1 1
Can charge more without 2 5
Don’t know what a condom is 0 0
Boss says not to use one 3 1
Other 2 5

a: Percentages calculated from the total number of migrant responses to the question on condom use (n=366), excluding 46 migrant respondents who did not respond to this question, including 7 due to survey print error

b: Percentages calculated from the total number of non-migrant responses to the question on condom use (n=148), excluding 3 non-migrant respondents who did not respond to this question

Note: Migrant respondents were significantly less likely to answer the question on condom use than non-migrants; therefore, migrant status comparisons may not be valid. Respondents could select multiple responses for the question on condom use

Source: AIC, Sex Worker Migration and Vulnerabilities to Trafficking 2010 [computer file]