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28/04/2016 - Colombia

COLOMBIA: SINTRASEXCO IS THE FIRST WOMEN SEX WORKERS’ UNION IN THE WORLD

ASMUBULI is the Colombian women sex workers’ organization struggling since 2008 for the recognition of autonomous sex work (without procurers) by the State. Last year, the organization embarked on a new journey as the Colombian Constitutional Court granted them what they needed for their main claim to become a reality. On November 26 SINTRASEXCO was born: the first union in the world whose members and leaders are women sex workers and that is recognized by the Ministry of Labour.

When L. was 24 and the mother of a two-year-old, she started working at Pandemo, a Bogota bar. She had talked to her prospective boss and verbally come to the agreement that she would work from 3 pm to 3 am, every day, with one free day every two weeks. Her boss agreed to pay for the sexual services she would provide at the bar. But a year later, in December, she realized she was pregnant, was not granted maternity leave and was forced to work without payment for more than three months.

L. went to the Social Protection Ministry and the Ministry sent a letter to her boss. He did not reply. L. took her case to the Ombudsman’s Office and even though they put pressure on the boss, he continued to remain silent. The claim reached the Colombian Constitutional Court, where judge Juan Carlos Henao signed decision T-629/10 by which the Court forced the Pandemo owner to pay for the time L. had worked without pay plus the twelve weeks of paid maternity leave she was entitled to. Besides protecting her rights, this case set a precedent: the Colombian Constitutional Court was ratifying that sex work was work. The decision said, “The sex worker must be considered entitled to special protection, as s/he is the weaker party in the contract and particularly because of the specific conditions in which her/his work is carried out and the historical and current discrimination they are often subjected to because of the activity they perform.”

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Asociación de Mujeres Buscando Libertad (ASMUBULI – Association of Women Seeking Freedom) is a women sex workers’ organization that since June 2008 has been advocating for a law regulation autonomous sex work. At the beginning, they only had representation in the Colombian capital but as time went by they were able to expand their networks and encompass most of the national territory.

After Judge Henao’s decision, sex workers in Colombia were able to start claiming what was due to them. If sex work was recognized by the State, it must have a union to defend them. On November 26, 2015, the ASMUBULI women approached the Ministry of Labour to register the first women sex workers’ union in the world: the Colombia Women Sex Workers’ Union, SINTRASEXCO in Spanish.

They were advised by the Informal Economy Office at the Colombian Confederation of Workers (CTC in Spanish). “At CTC we differentiate between two terms: we don’t speak of ‘prostitution’ but of ‘autonomous sex work’. The former may include someone being forced to do it, trafficking of women, child prostitution and child pornography. And the latter implies women who define themselves as sex workers, do it willingly and consider it their livelihood. But because it is the only job seen under the magnifying glass of morality, rights are denied to workers on the pretext of their’s not being ‘decent work’ when in fact it is the oldest occupation in the world”, said Mirta Rodríguez, a member of the CTC Executive Committee, to the media.

“We provide a service with our body and are being paid for it. But we do not want to be seen as a vector for infection, we are human beings. Sex work is not undignified, what is undignified are the conditions under which we perform it. This is why we demand recognition of our work and equal rights, just like any woman worker”, added Fidelia Suárez, ASMUBULI’s national coordinator at the time of registering the union.

The Colombian case is a unique precedent in the world. As laws are similar across Latin American countries, the legal trajectory to form women sex workers’ unions across the continent can be similar.

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When L. told her boss that she was expecting twins and it was a high-risk pregnancy, he gave her another job. She was supposed to manage the bar but this arrangement only lasted a few days. On February 22, the boss refused to continue paying her and forced her to work again for 12 hours, with a pregnancy already in its second quarter.

L. lived in a rented room in Barrio Jerusalén and could not stop working because her belly was growing and she had another child to feed. On March 24th she had to go for a medical check-up and her appointment was at 2.30 pm. She told her boss about it but when she reached Pandemo, 20 minutes later than her usual entry hour, she was not allowed in. She was told that because she was pregnant, she no longer had a job and that a replacement had already been found.

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Most women sex workers’ organizations are non-profit and non-governmental organizations, recognized as such by Civil Law. This means that they can hold meetings but not claim rights such as paid holidays or retirement. SINTRASEXCO was recognized as a union by the highest body regulating labour in any country – the Ministry of Labour. This means that their claims now fall within Labour Law and they have the same rights and obligations as any other worker in Colombia.

After the Court decision, L. was able to pay the several months of rent she owed and also to take care of her pregnancy. The Court said the district police and the Social Protection Ministry must formulate public policies to guarantee the right to health for women sex workers. Since 2010, the State is recognizing them as workers.

ASMUBULI’s next goal is a law regulating autonomous sex work (without procurers). They want the State to, beyond recognizing them, regulate sex work, set the conditions of hygiene in their workplaces, and prevent the different forms of violence they experience daily. “We don’t want a single woman sex worker killed again”, said Fidelia Suárez.