Search form

menu menu
  • Daily & Weekly newsletters
  • Buy & download The Bulletin
  • Comment on our articles

Sex workers in Belgium considered legal employees under reform

08:53 26/06/2023

Sex workers can officially register as legal employees for the first time in Belgium following a new reform that proponents are calling “an incredibly important step”.

The federal government made the decision at the end of last week, Bruzz reports.

“The decriminalisation last year was only the beginning – this is really the capstone,” said Brussels advocacy organisation UTSOPI, an organisation working across Belgium to promote sex workers' safety and rights.

Since 1 June last year, sex work has no longer been prohibited in Belgium and workers can declare themselves as self-employeed.

The bill approved last week ensures that they can also work as employees. Social affairs minister Frank Vandenbroucke (Vooruit) said the bill guaranteed sex workers the same rights as other workers.

The bill also builds in safety guarantees. For instance, sex workers can refuse to perform sexual acts or refuse clients without that being a grounds for dismissal, and there must be an emergency button in every room used for their work, said justice minister Vincent Van Quickenborne (Open VLD).

The employer of sex workers must also have no criminal record and be based in Belgium, and a reference person must always be present.

“This step forward is in no way meant to encourage prostitution, but provides a framework for it,” said minister of work and economy Pierre-Yves Dermagne (PS).

Pimping still remains prohibited, and those who call on sex workers outside the legal framework can still be prosecuted.

“It is incredibly important and very good that work was done so quickly,” said UTSOPI director Daan Bauwens.

“The voice of the sector was also taken into account. We have been consulted five times since talks began in May last year. We feel that we were listened to, reality was taken into account and there is much less prejudice.”

According to Bauwens, decriminalisation was already an important first step last year, but the employment contract is the final piece.

"Decriminalisation is of limited use if it is not followed up by a labour law," said Bauwens.

"We think it is normal for someone to wear a helmet when working on a construction site. There should also be safety measures for sex workers, given that it is a high-risk activity.

"With decriminalisation, sex work became legal for the self-employed, but becoming self-employed is not easy for everyone. So a full status is important for workers so that they also get social rights, such as maternity leave, pension accrual, holidays and so on."

Advocates believe an employment contract can provide a solution to current problems for many sex workers, though it is not a solution for the entire sector: people without valid residence papers who therefore cannot get a work contract often work in window and street prostitution.

“Some people are left out [of this legislation], about 10% of the entire sector,” Bauwens said.

“Anyone who employs someone, with or without valid residence papers, is obliged to comply with Belgian labour law. So in principle, all sex workers will be entitled to certain conditions.”

Bauwens pointed out that both the federal and Brussels governments are at the forefront of decriminalising sex work: “We are even further ahead than New Zealand, where sex work has been decriminalised for 20 years. But even there, there is no labour law yet.”

Written by Helen Lyons