18 DECEMBER 2023

#OurStories: Sex workers’ rights are labour rights

Nina is a sex worker, but she cannot work legally in Greece because of the many restrictions set out in the current law relating to sex work. She doesn’t have national insurance; she isn’t entitled to medical care, and she won’t get a pension when she stops working. The way she is forced to work leaves her completely exposed. She is often a victim of abusive behavior, but she cannot report it, for fear of being arrested. The stigma attached to her profession means she cannot talk about her life, even with people she cares about. In her view the main problem is the way in which sex work is viewed by the state itself: if the state set an example, maybe society would also follow in due course.

This is why, even though Nina is completely invisible in the eyes of the Greek state, she found herself in the Municipal Council Chamber of the Municipality of Athens on a warm afternoon on Thursday, 2nd June, International Sex Workers’ Day, together with other sex workers, state representatives (ministers, MPs, members of political parties), representatives of Civil Society and activist organisations. There she heard sex workers talking about all the problems they had to face in their work, and she was given the opportunity to speak about issues that concerned her personally. She was able to put some pressure on politicians to take action and pass legislation that would improve the lives of sex workers. Along with the other unions and organisations involved, she even got them to commit to doing something to help.

The problems Nina faces are those faced by thousands of sex workers in Greece, who are as completely invisible to the Greek state as she is. Their problems (should) concern us all, since they fall within the scope of labour rights. On that Thursday of the 2nd June, Nina felt some hope: for a while she felt that she was gaining the status of a real person in the eyes of the state, and it might not be long before the exclusion regime would stop. It was a hope shared by all the other sex workers who were present at this event.

This all grew out of a brainstorming session organised by the team of Red Umbrella Athens, an Empowerment Centre for Sex Workers, and Positive Voice, the Greek Association of People Living with HIV. After working in the field for many years they had come to realise the significant impact that marginalisation has on the wellbeing of sex workers. Red Umbrella had already been providing empowerment services for some years, but their team and that of Positive Voice were looking for ways to improve these services and take advocacy for this section of society a step further. In a brainstorming session, with input from all the members of the two groups, the idea emerged of the programme ‘Dana – Empowering people who work in sex’, which is implemented under the Active citizens fund Greece, with the Bodossaki Foundation and SolidarityNow as Fund Operator and Positive Voice as the project promoter.

At the heart of the project is supporting the services offered by Red Umbrella Athens (psychosocial support, legal support, counselling around sexual health and harm reduction, free STD examinations, recreational activities and material assistance), but also the establishment of an equivalent centre in Thessaloniki, Red Umbrella Thessaloniki, which opened a few weeks ago. Apart from these, however, the programme for the project includes public awareness activities, with social media campaigns and a television spot, and advocacy initiatives at the state level, including meetings with institutional bodies and events like the one on 2nd June.

This all began with the passion, dedication and hard work of a small group of people. Thanks to what the Bodossaki Foundation and SolidarityNow recognised, thanks to their sharing our vision and agreeing on the importance of this venture, an idea which first grew out of the hopes of a few people has become something much bigger, much stronger and much more meaningful.

Although the project is still in its early stages, having only started a few weeks ago, we can already see the positive impact it is having on the sector we are concerned with. Red Umbrella Athens is continuing its work with new vigour; Red Umbrella Thessaloniki has just started work. Together they help hundreds of clients every month, in practical ways and on many levels. The programme’s inaugural event also managed to raise public awareness, bring together all the concerned parties who had hardly been in contact before, and had pushed through the first steps towards changing the legislative framework for Greek sex workers. The feedback we received about this event was heartwarming and has given us the strength to continue this – often difficult – work.

Our aim is continuously to improve our empowerment services. Ideally, though, we’d also like to secure basic rights for sex workers, and to do that, we need people’s help. So, we are urging everyone to learn about the current legislation regarding sex work, reflect on how dysfunctional it is and how many problems sex workers have to confront, to share it with others and put pressure on the state together with us. We hope and believe that this project will be a first step in the right direction, for a real empowerment of all people who work in sex.

Below you can watch the DANA project launch, which took placed on Thursday, 2nd June, International Sex Workers’ Day: