AIDS body warns of new risk to sex workers

THE O'Farrell government risks jeopardising the health and safety of sex workers and the public if it pushes ahead with a proposed overhaul of the sex industry, according to the AIDS Council of NSW.

Before last year's state election, the Coalition pledged to create a brothel licensing authority and to charge operators licensing fees to combat corruption and unauthorised brothels.

The move would be a big shift from the system of decriminalisation in NSW.

Last month, the Special Minister of State, Chris Hartcher, announced that the Department of Premier and Cabinet, helped by an inter-agency working party, had been asked to develop options for reform.

The move has alarmed ACON, which says decriminalisation is working well, has led to positive health outcomes and has ensured there has not been one case of HIV transmission from a sex worker to a client in NSW.

''What [licensing] does is create a two-tiered system and it pushes sex workers further underground,'' said Kylie Tattersall, the executive director of the Sex Workers Outreach Project at ACON which promotes safe sex.

Sex work has been decriminalised in NSW since 1995 and councils are responsible for land-use consent. Street-based work is legal, provided it is away from places such as schools, churches and hospitals.

Victoria has a licensed system, under which operators pay about $4300 to apply for a brothel licence and $2500 annually to renew it, with licence applications placed in newspaper advertisements.

Ms Tattersall said the fees and process deterred most operators from becoming licensed.

''They can become fearful. It means they move around a lot more, they don't advertise as freely,'' she said, adding this made it harder for projects such as hers to reach sex workers.

In a submission, one sex worker said licensing would make her feel like ''a dog or sex offender'' and that some sex workers might be forced to operate illegally.

''Not all of us can work in brothels. Not all of us like working for other people,'' wrote the woman, who asked to be known as ''Holly''.

''So that means less sex workers will pay tax, less will get regular sexual health checks and testing and less will report any violence in fear of what could happen to them.''

A spokeswoman for Mr Hartcher said no decision had been made.

''The working party is inviting submissions on the issues paper from all interested parties, which will feed into options for the government's consideration,'' she said.

The Greens MP, Cate Faehrmann, said the government had been clear before the election about its objective to introduce licensing.

''The evidence for decriminalisation is overwhelming,'' she said. ''I'm concerned this review is a sham and an outcome has already been determined.''

There were 95 licensed brothels in Victoria in 2010, with estimates of unlicensed brothels ranging from fewer than 70 to more than 300, according to the NSW government's issues paper.

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