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  • Belgian sex workers can now conclude employment contracts
  • Belgium will decriminalize prostitution by 2022
  • Europe is divided on the unified decriminalization of prostitution
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In Belgium, sex workers can be officially employed. Maru Lombardo/Unsplash

Belgian sex workers can now conclude employment contracts

In Belgium, sex workers can now enter into regular employment contracts and contracts: under the new rules, they can sign employment contracts with employers who are approved for such activities. This is allowed by a law adopted in May.

This means that men and women involved in prostitution in Belgium can now enjoy the same social rights as other workers.

To be legally employed, employers must have a criminal record check, an operating license and be based in Belgium. They must also respect the right of their employees to refuse a client and to stop a sexual act at any time.

In Belgium, this move is seen as an unprecedented effort to regulate the sector, but not everyone welcomes it.

Until now, erotic massage parlors in Belgium have been operating in a legal grey area: workers were paid in cash or employed under contracts that did not detail their activities.

Supporters of the law argue that this was seen as an open door to abuse and that by decriminalizing certain forms of sex work, the government will now be able to set clear rules for the sector and ensure that people have access to unemployment benefits, health insurance, and maternity leave[1].

People who provide sex services are often called criminals, but now they can be proper employees. Romain Dancre/Unsplash
People who provide sex services are often called criminals, but now they can be proper employees. Romain Dancre/Unsplash

Belgium will decriminalize prostitution by 2022

Belgium decriminalizes prostitution in 2022. Until then, sex workers were part of the underground economy: they had no access to social security, sickness benefits, loans, or credit, they did not pay taxes, and, even in a social context, they had to hide the nature of their activities.

Moreover, the criminal liability was extended to all those around them, so that those who helped them, such as accountants handling finances or the administrators of an erotic massage parlour, could also be prosecuted.

Everything changed with the decriminalization law. Belgium decriminalized all third parties and made it legal for some of them to be employed as sex workers with a contract guaranteeing their labor rights[2].

In the Netherlands, Germany, and Austria, sex work is legalized in some form. Sweden and France criminalize the purchase but not the sale of sex.

Europe is divided on the unified decriminalization of prostitution

The European Parliament (EP) adopted a resolution against the decriminalization of prostitution in 2023. It states that EU Member States must promote an inclusive society and protect people, especially women, in vulnerable situations.

The resolution was adopted partly to highlight the uneven laws on prostitution in EU Member States.

The Netherlands allows sex workers to provide services. Jonathan Taylor/Unsplash
The Netherlands allows sex workers to provide services. Jonathan Taylor/Unsplash

The drafters of the resolution argued that the differences in Member States' laws on prostitution provide a fertile ground for organized crime groups and individuals.

The resolution states that "the legalisation of a profit-making system that is inherently violent, discriminatory and highly inhumane is contrary to the EU's human rights objectives".

The document draws attention to the fact that the equality model is applied in some European countries—Sweden, France, Spain, and Ireland [3].

This model criminalizes the purchase of sex but does not penalize those who engage in prostitution or human trafficking.

Previously, the EP opposed the implementation of this model across the EU, despite statistics in the resolution showing that it has reduced the demand for sex work and the overall level of violence against sex workers.

The Human Rights Watch (HRW) praised the rejection of the equality model, saying that data from France and Ireland show that it has led to an increase in homicides, violence, and other negative consequences against sex workers.

Meanwhile, the United Nations (UN) Working Group on Discrimination against Women and Girls published a report last year calling for action to fully decriminalize consensual adult sex work worldwide[4].

The report analyses the polarising debate on sex work, which often overshadows calls for evidence-based policies to protect the rights of women and girls affected.

According to the UN, studies by Human Rights Watch, as well as research and analysis by academics, health journals, anti-trafficking organizations, and sex workers themselves, have consistently shown that the criminalization of sex work makes sex workers more vulnerable to violence, including rape, assault, and murder.

The 2021 study found that the criminalization of sex work risks undermining the work of both the individuals themselves and the defenders of their rights in the fight against trafficking.

The criminalization of these activities is opposed by several other UN agencies, including the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), the World Health Organisation (WHO), the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) and the UN Development Programme (UNDP). Civil society organizations, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, also announce policies in favor of decriminalizing adult sex work.