Ver.di seeks to give prostitutes a voice

In January 2002, the German Unified Service Sector Union (ver.di), announced a plan to help prostitutes to improve their living and working conditions. The union is seeking to help sex industry workers to take advantage of a new law which came into force at the beginning of 2002, which makes it easier for prostitutes to gain access to the social security system and to claim compensation in court. Ver.di has also started to recruit prostitutes in Dortmund and taken the initiative to set up a works council in a Hamburg brothel.

In January 2002, the Unified Service Sector Union (Vereinte Dienstleistungsgewerkschaft, ver.di) announced a new plan to support sex industry workers. While it has been estimated that some 400,000 prostitutes work in Germany, offering their services a total of 1.2 million times a day, trade union have not given them much consideration until recently. In an unprecedented effort, ver.di's sectoral unit number 13 (Fachbereich 13), which is in charge of 'special services', intends to change this situation and help prostitutes to improve their living and working conditions. This initiative comes at a time when the current 'red-Green' coalition government has enacted a new law which will give sex workers improved rights in the fields of contract law, criminal law and social security. According to ver.di's spokesperson, Klaus Utz, it is in particular during the time when these new legal rights are being established that prostitutes need trade union assistance most.

New law gives more rights to prostitutes

On 1 January 2002, a new Law on the Legal Status of Prostitutes (Gesetz zur Regelung der Rechtsverhältnisse der Prostituierten, ProstG) came into force which will greatly improve the legal status of prostitutes. While even prior to the reform, prostitution was not prohibited as such, the legal system did not grant prostitutes any rights with respect to contract law. Because prostitution was considered as immoral (under section 138 of the German Civil Code) contracts between 'sex sellers' and customers were null and void. In the event that a customer refused to pay the bill, there was no possibility for prostitutes to claim the money owed in court. While the new law aims to improve the legal situation of prostitutes, it will not grant their clients full contractual rights. Thus, clients may not be entitled to sue prostitutes on grounds of inadequate services.

A second component of the new law seeks to improve prostitutes' working conditions. Prior to the reform, sex industry workplaces with good working conditions were rare because section 180a I, clause 2 of the German Criminal Code lists 'promotion of prostitution' as a criminal offence, punishable by up to three years in prison. The law thus effectively restrained owners of brothels from improving sanitary conditions in these establishments. While enforced prostitution, trafficking in human beings, fostering the prostitution of children and procuring will be still be punished under the law, the ban on 'promotion of prostitution' has been lifted.

Due to the change to the Criminal Code, prostitutes have also gained direct access to the social security system. Relieved of the threat of committing a criminal offence, prostitutes' 'employers' are now allowed to register them with the social security administration. In particular, prostitutes who work in an establishment and are thus not considered to be 'self-employed' are thus granted access to health and unemployment insurance as well as to the statutory pension scheme. Among other effects, coverage by the social security system makes prostitutes eligible to participate in publicly subsidised retraining programmes and in special programmes geared to their reintegration into the labour market.

In a written statement, the federal minister for families, senior citizens, women and youth, Christine Bergmann, praised the law as a major step towards revising a 'moral double standard'. Ms Bergmann argued that prior to the reform prostitutes neither had statutory rights, nor were they covered by the social security system, but the state still forced them to pay taxes on their income. The new law now better protects prostitutes from pimps but will also provide incentives for prostitutes to leave the sex business.

Union initiatives

While these legal changes were welcomed by ver.di and Hydra- an association of prostitutes which seeks to help their peers to claim their rights from the public health administration (Gesundheitsämter) and to improve working conditions - ver.di is now also slowly beginning to create appropriate structures for the representation of prostitutes. In a first step, ver.di will develop standard working contracts which acknowledge the specific conditions of prostitution. Because, even after the reform, the legal situation within the sex business is complicated, the union plans to assist prostitutes in finding their way through the legal maze. In the city of Dortmund ver.di has already gone beyond mere assistance and succeeded in recruiting sex workers to the union. In addition to these initiatives, ver.di also plans to create structures for co-determination at the company level. In a first attempt, ver.di's Hamburg state-level union body will assist prostitutes to set up a works council in one of the city's brothels.

While ver.di is careful not to impose its own standards on this specific group of workers, it plans to work on aspects of the political regulation of prostitution. In particular, the union hopes to focus on issues such as trafficking in women, and thus hopes to contribute to protecting the legal part of the market from illegal practices.

Commentary

Prostitution is not just a regular job and Minister Bergmann is probably right when she assumes that it would not be appropriate to apply the same standards to prostitution as to other occupations within the service sector. This is, however, not to say that prostitutes are to be left without any legal rights. Indeed, the new law has the potential to improve the living standards and working conditions of one of the most outrageously disadvantaged groups of workers. However, there is another aspect of the new law which might be even more important. In providing more definite boundaries between practices considered to be legal (though not automatically in line with everybody's moral standards) and those to be punished under the law, the majority in parliament has opened up a window of opportunity which helps other actors within civil society to enter the field. With the new law, ver.di has gained access to a new constituency and vice versa. (Martin Behrens, Institute for Economic and Social Research, WSI)

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