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"Union pushes for sex worker visas" October 14, 2005, AAP

Most Asian sex workers trafficked into Australia want to go on working as prostitutes and should be given visas, says a sex industry union. A sex workers association forum in Melbourne was told Asian sex slavery in Australia was largely a myth. And panel members said the federal government should provide 300 working visas a year, instead of raiding brothels and deporting women.

Scarlet Alliance president Janelle Fawkes estimates there are between 300 and 400 women in Australia working under a trafficking contract.

"Of that number there are probably around 10 people who have in some way been deceptively recruited," Ms Fawkes said.

"The majority of people who are trafficked into the Australian sex industry are in fact migrant sex workers who .... chose to enter Australia for the perception of improved working conditions," Ms Fawkes said.

However, the government is unlikely to offer working visas, because it does not consider prostitution a sufficient "skill".

Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone's office said sex workers, like fruit pickers, were not eligible for working visas because they offered low-level skills and Australian industries had no demand for them.

But the alliance says the issue is also one of public safety.

Panel member Jenni Gamble said public health was compromised by sex-slavery legislation which pushed the sex industry underground.

"Australia leads the world in best practice around HIV prevention and the major part of that success has been a harm reduction approach where you just ignore the activities that people are undertaking and put their health and safety at the forefront and that's what's important here," Ms Gamble said.

Sex worker and alliance spokeswoman Rachel Wotton said south-east Asian brothels, where many students worked, were targeted for raids.

"Within the student visa regulations it says that one can work up to 20 hours per week."

But she said there was conflict over "20 hours".

"You can sit there all night and only get one one-hour job, so you only get paid for one hour. It isn't like you're working at David Jones."

An Immigration Department spokeswoman said the department did not target brothels or massage parlours on the basis of workers' ethnicity.

The department understood the concerns about measuring time at work in the sex industry.

However, "if a sex worker is rostered on for a shift, the length of that shift will be taken into consideration for immigration purposes".

In the last financial year, 290 people were found working illegally in brothels and massage parlours - 20 of them in Victoria, the spokeswomen said.

By June 30, 235 of them had been returned home.

Sex worker and author Alison Murray said restrictive laws put women at risk.

"I came here as a migrant sex worker myself, 20 years ago from London. No-one said I was a sex slave," Ms Murray said.

"I came here on a student visa but eventually got residency. It was very easy for me, which makes me really angry about how unfair it is that it's so hard for people from specific countries.

"It's actually the laws around sex work and travel restrictions that create that space for exploitation and violence."

Senator Vanstone's office denied government policy discriminated on the basis of culture.

© 2005 AAP