13/09/2017 04:40 BST | Updated 13/09/2017 05:06 BST

How Decriminalising Sex Work Would Help Some Of The Most Stigmatised Workers In The Country

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In my sixteen years as a sex worker, I've met no-one without an opinion about how I earn a living. Often those opinions are strongly held and deeply personal. Although such feelings are entirely valid on an individual basis, they are not an adequate foundation for policy decisions.

Few people are familiar with UK law on prostitution, which is complicated, unclear and extensively criminalises people who sell sex and our clients. I've met few campaigners for criminalisation who seem to understand the three different legal models and often use the terms "legalisation" and "decriminalisation" interchangeably as if ignorant of their enormous differences. Legalisation holds sway in Nevada, Amsterdam and Germany, automatically criminalising any who do not comply with the regulatory regime - this may include those unwilling to register with the state, undergo high cost compulsory frequent medical checks or who wish to work in their own premises rather than large venues controlled by someone else.

Decriminalisation, the removal of laws relating to consensual adult sexual behaviour, has been instituted nationwide only in New Zealand.

By far the most common approach is criminalisation, the position in Britain, the US and Sweden. The so-called "Swedish model" does not decriminalise people who sell sex as it is still illegal for us to work together and police cannot identify clients without targeting sex workers. The police in Nordic countries have variously: advocated filming us having sex with clients without our knowledge (Sweden), threatened landlords with prosecution for renting accommodation to alleged sex workers (Norway), and been accused of gang rape by sex workers (Sweden again).

TUC Congress will today debate a motion from train drivers' union ASLEF, asking for support for full and complete decriminalisation of consensual adult sex work.

We believe sex workers should have the same rights as every other worker in this country. This includes their right to join a trade union and organise.

Current legislation forces these workers to work alone leaving them vulnerable to crime and afraid to report violence to the police through of fear of arrest. Decriminalisation would increase sex workers' safety, enhance access to health services and end criminal records - thereby making exiting the industry easier. We hope for an informed debate and a positive result for some of the most stigmatised workers in society.

Rights, respect and decriminalisation are the demands from a global movement of hundreds of thousands of sex workers - trade unionists know the solution to exploitation and abuse in any industry is the promotion of full human, civil and labour rights for those involved. GMB takes a lot of flak for including sex workers - yet trades union membership is in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is illegal for sex workers to share premises or organise work with others - but freedom of association is a fundamental right. And criminalisation deprives sex workers of equal protection of the law because people who sell sex do not trust the police not to prosecute them or their clients.

Ugly Mugs, the anti-violence project dedicated to sex workers' protection, sees the consequences of criminalisation. Only one in four sex workers reporting crimes to Ugly Mugs are willing to have contact with the police. This falls to zero in areas that actively enforce criminalisation, allowing violent perpetrators to operate with impunity.

CEO Georgina Perry says: "Every day, sex workers are told that the 'crime' of association with other sex workers, the 'crime' of seeking business, makes them liable to prosecution rather than protection and if they become victims of crime then this is less important than the laws they are breaking.

"National Ugly Mugs exists because the law actively discriminates against sex workers and this is wrong. We call for complete decriminalisation of all laws relating to the sale and purchase of sexual services."

Although this view is controversial within the union movement, the need for decriminalisation is widely accepted, particularly in the public health field. Public health policy is driven by the evidence of 'what works' and both UNAIDS and the World Health Organisation (WHO), as well as myriad national and local bodies, acknowledge that treating sex workers as entitled to self-determination with the right and capacity to make decisions for themselves is the most effective way to tackle disease and violence. Amnesty International has undertaken extensive research on sex workers' lives under different legal regimes - and concluded that decriminalisation was the most effective way to improve our lives and increase our safety.

Prostitution is having sex for money, and neither having sex nor getting paid is inherently abusive, exploitative or harmful. Yes, there are people in prostitution who are coerced or drug dependent or have otherwise limited choices - the problem is coercion, drug dependency, lack of choice, social exclusion and stigmatisation. By confusing prostitution with a whole host of other problems, we allow those problems to continue to flourish. It is vulnerability that creates victims. We demand our rights and we demand justice.

Cat Stephens is a sex worker and GMB activist