Monthly Archives: June 2013

Corner Mothers: Argentine sex workers using street art

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Dr Kate Hardy, CERIC.

On a street corner a woman is pictured with a leg leaning against the wall, her body adorned in the classic signifiers of sex work – a short dress and impossibly high heels. With one arm raised above her head, the other stretches out laconically to the side. At first sight this is just another stereotypical image of street prostitution, highly sexualized images which rarely reflect its reality. On second sight, the hand that stretches out, stretches around the corner, where it meets the small hand of a young girl, in school uniform, accompanied by a younger boy, both with backpacks slung over their shoulders. Suddenly the image transforms to see that this is, in fact, a mother walking her children to school.

This is one image from the new campaign ‘Mamas de la Esquina’ (Corner Mothers) being led by AMMAR, the sex workers’ union of Argentina. The street art is being used to challenge images of sex workers and to emphasise the fact that 86% of sex workers are Mothers. It is part of a broader campaign for decriminalization in the country, in which AMMAR have already won the repeal of laws in two provinces. The argument goes that as women sell sex in order to support their families, just like any other worker, they therefore deserve protection and from the exploitation and police violence they face every day.

As informal workers, positioned outside the norms and institutions of traditional labour relations, AMMAR and other sex workers’ organisations often have to use innovative means to campaign for better working conditions in their industry. Where there are no employers and the workplace is the public space of the street, improving working conditions frequently relates to demanding protections from the state, namely from displacement and police brutality. Sex workers are routinely bribed by members of the police force and one branch secretary, Sandra Cabrera, was assassinated by a bullet to the neck, after publicly denouncing the role of the police in trafficking and indoor prostitution.

Despite such intense pressure from the police to stop, AMMAR have continued to organize since their inception in 1995. When they first came together, with little political knowledge, they simply asked not to be re-arrested within 24 hours of being released from a cell. Since then, they have established a primary school, a health clinic, won the repeal of laws repressing their work in two provinces and they now have a voice in government bodies, particularly in the arena of HIV prevention. Elena Reynaga, President of AMMAR, who was illiterate when she founded the organization, is now an influential member of the UN Rapporteur on HIV/AIDS.

One challenge that remains is changing public perceptions of the reasons that the sex industry exists and why women (as well as men and transgender people) choose to work in it. By emphasizing the socially reproductive work it supports, AMMAR hope that it will be recognized that in a context in which all but the independently wealthy must sell their labour for money, the reasons for participation in the sex industry are simply the same as that sold anywhere else. Challenging this stigma and educating people about the roots of labour in the sex industry is an important battle, not only to transform the material conditions of sex workers lives, but also for creating conditions in which women are more free to choose whether or not they enter the sex – or another – industry.

Kate Hardy wrote her doctoral thesis ‘Proletarian of the night: sex worker organizing in Argentina’ on AMMAR and has published work on the organization in a number of books and journals

Government rhetoric is likely to turn off business and undermine a flagship policy

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Dr Jo Ingold

Everyone knows someone who has experienced, or is currently experiencing, job insecurity, unemployment or underemployment. In the past, it was largely those at the lower end of the labour market with low, or no, skills or qualifications who were most likely to find themselves without work. But in the current recession, anyone can be unemployed – whatever their skill or qualification level, whatever job or industry they’re in.

The Government repeatedly claims that they want to help people into work. They argue that their combination of tax and benefits reforms and the expansion of welfare to work programmes are the best ways to do this. They also make little secret of the faith they place in enterprise and the private sector to get the economy moving and to tackle unemployment. As Iain Duncan Smith said in a speech in Madrid in July, 2011: “Government cannot do it all. As we work hard to break welfare dependency and get young people ready for the labour market, we need businesses to give them a chance”.

There can be no doubt that employers are fundamental to the success (or failure) of welfare to work initiatives, such as the Work Programme, introduced in 2011. The Work Programme is the cornerstone of the Coalition Government’s employment policy. Central to its design is a network of mainly private providers, contracted to deliver tailored assistance to get the long-term unemployed back into work.

As the CBI has highlighted, the Work Programme can offer a range of benefits to employers looking to hire, including tailored packages which reduce recruitment costs and on-going support. Recently, here at CERIC, I’ve been researching (1) whether and why employers do or do not recruit from the Work Programme, and (2) how providers can persuade employers to give more job opportunities to the long-term unemployed. In the past year I’ve surveyed employers and interviewed providers and other key stakeholders. This research has highlighted two important barriers to persuading employers to recruit unemployed people. These are employers’ negative perceptions about unemployed people, and their portrayal in the media.

The first barrier is relatively well-known: for example, in a survey by the Institute of Leadership and Management a quarter of employers said that they were less likely to recruit people who were long-term unemployed.

Also well-known are the views put forward by some of the media about people claiming benefit. However, the Government itself is also increasingly talking about shirkers, scroungers, welfare dependency and benefits as a ‘lifestyle choice’. Government ministers present erroneous statistics about unemployment, worklessness and benefit receipt. They also focus on specific, individual and unrepresentative cases. This not only presents an extremely misleading picture. It is potentially sabotaging the delivery of a key government policy, hindering both those searching for work and those at the coalface who are actively involved in assisting them. Kayleigh Garthwaite  highlighted this recently in relation to long-term sick and disabled people.

Those who took part in my research, as well as employer organisations such as the CBI have suggested that the Government should do more to promote the benefits of the Work Programme to employers. Painting those who are unemployed, lone parents or disabled as shirkers is unlikely to address employers’ concerns about hiring people who have been out of work for a long time. On the contrary, it is far more likely to lead to the cementing of any existing perceptions that employers may have: that people on benefit lack motivation, self-discipline or that they are never going to be the most promising candidates for jobs. At a time when finding any work is difficult enough – let alone sufficient, regular work that pays the bills – this seems perverse.

The Government says that they want to move people off benefit and into work. To this end, Ministers and MPs need to be ambassadors for unemployed people. A myriad of evidence over the years makes it clear that very few people actually want to live on benefit. Most people who are unemployed want to work. One thing that is unlikely to be effective in helping them into work is portraying unemployed people as somehow ‘deficient’, reinforcing stereotypes based on prejudice, rather than evidence. This is doing unemployed people – and businesses – a severe disservice. Through its rhetoric around benefit receipt and unemployment, the Government is not only kicking people when they’re down. They’re undermining their own policy and potentially wasting large amounts of public money in the process.

Dr Jo Ingold is a Post-doctoral Research Fellow at CERIC.