SEXHUM Aotearoa New Zealand

In Aotearoa New Zealand, the SEXHUM project focused on the impact of the decriminalising Prostitution Reform Act 2003 (PRA) on the lives and rights of migrant sex workers. Under the PRA, actions such as soliciting and brothel keeping have no criminal sanctions, and sex workers can work on the street, in managed brothels, or manage themselves and work from their own home or from an apartment hired by them for work. While any person who manages even one sex worker is required to obtain an operators certificate (s34, PRA), sex workers who are self-managing, with no one person in charge, can work in groups of up to four sex workers (s5, PRA), depending on local bylaws and district plans relating to employment at home (s12, PRA). 

Service provision to sex workers is provided by a government funded, peer national sex worker organisation, the Aotearoa New Zealand Sex Workers’ Collective (NZPC) which played a central role in achieving Decriminalisation in 2003. Compared to all other SEXHUM setting, national sex workers and migrant sex worker who are permanent resident report comparatively much greater trust in and access to effective assistance by police and the justice system if victims of a crime. Stigma against (non migrant) sex work has reportedly decreased since the introduction of Decriminalisation and trafficking experiences were not reported.

However, crucially the PRA makes it illegal for migrants on temporary visa (such as a student visa, work visa, working holiday visa, skilled migrant visa, or visitor visa) to work in the sex industry. Its Section 19, which was added last minute against advice by the NZPC as an Anti-Trafficking clause, specifically states that no person may come to NZ with the intention of becoming a sex worker, brothel owner, or operator if they hold a temporary visa. Asian migrants are occasionally racially profiled and denied entry if suspected to be willing to engage in the sex industry. 

The main aim of the SEXHUM project in Aotearoa New Zealand has been to understand whether and in what way Section 19 actually protected migrant sex workers from exploitation and trafficking by gathering and analysing their experiences of migration and work. Of the 58 interviews completed in Aotearoa New Zealand, 43 are with People of Colour, 29 of whom are from Asian countries, with the majority (12) from mainland China.

Our data confirm previous studies showing there was no evidence of trafficking. At the same time, our data confirms that section 19 of the PRA, brought in to prevent trafficking, leaves migrant sex workers more vulnerable to abuse and exploitation (including trafficking) because it inhibits them from reporting to the police out of a fear of deportation.

Migrant sex workers on temporary visas, and particularly those racialised as Asian, report racial profiling by police and immigration during checks, fear of deportation and mistrust of police and authorities, lack of access to justice when victims of sexual assault, theft, violence and other crimes, blackmailing by clients and operators who threaten to report them to authorities, and lack of access to health assistance for fear of being reported to authorities and deported. 

Our findings also show that Section 19 prevents migrant sex workers from approaching medical professionals, with many sex workers stating they would not see a doctor in Aotearoa New Zealand, but would prefer to travel back to their home country, even if it was just for a small matter.

During the COVID-19 crisis, the national sex worker organisation NZPC helped national and permanent resident sex workers getting access to benefits and government support, many got the support independently either as sex workers or as sole traders (without specifying their involvement in sex work). Migrant sex workers on temporary visa had no access to any COVID-19 state aids unless they were also working in other sectors. NZPC attempted to help migrant sex workers as much as possible, for example informing them of (backdoor) ways of accessing some benefits but had no means to help them financially. 

Aotearoa New Zealand-specific policymaking suggestions:

SEXHUM findings in Aotearoa New Zealand strongly support the 2018 statement of the United Nations Committee for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) that “migrant women engaged in prostitution may be exposed to exploitation and are at risk of trafficking, owing to the ban on engaging in prostitution imposed on migrants, which prevents them from reporting abuse for fear of deportation”. As a result, the CEDAW Committee recommended that Section 19 of the PRA be amended, “with a view to reducing its negative impact on migrant women” and “and adopt measures aimed at preventing discrimination against women in prostitution in the State party, with a view to preventing and addressing the factors and structures that render migrant women vulnerable to trafficking” (CEDAW/C/NZL/CO/8, paras 27(a), 28(a) & (b), 2018, pp. 8-9).

An interdepartmental committee consisting of representatives from the Ministry of Business, Immigration and Employment (Immigration and WorkSafe), Ministry of Women’s Affairs, Police, and the Ministry of Health and community partners such as NZPC (Aotearoa New Zealand Sex Workers’ Collective), Shakti, and the Anglican Church should be formed to ensure the rights of migrant sex workers are protected and upheld. Specifically, this Committee should examine ways in which the recommendations from the CEDAW Committee may be upheld by:

  • Repealing Section 19 of the PRA.
  • Removing the ban on temporary migrants, including students, entering contract employment or working for themselves in the sex industry. (rather than only being able to work for an operator, which may increase vulnerability to exploitation).
  • Separating immigration control from the enforcement of the PRA to address the needs of migrant workers and protect them from violence and exploitation.
  • Removing the link between a work visa and a specific employer, allowing migrants to change employers if they are, or fear, being exploited by an employer.
  • Introducing a work visa for sex work that people can apply for if they intend to work in the sex industry. The name of this visa should not mention sex work or ‘adult entertainment’ as this may affect the ability of people to travel to countries where sex work is stigmatized and criminalized, including their countries of origin.
  • People on visitor’s visas found working in the sex industry found in breach of their visa conditions should be encouraged to apply for a specific work visa, rather than be deported.
  • Making sure that those facing deportation for breach of their temporary visa do not have sex work recorded on the Deportation Liability Notice or other paperwork related to their deportation in order to avoid outing them as sex workers and the related stigma that attracts.
NZPC and the 2003 Prostitution Reform Act: striving for full decriminalisation.

NZPC: Aotearoa New Zealand Sex Workers’ Collective, formerly the New Zealand Prostitutes’
Collective was formed in 1987 when groups of Māori and Pakeha sex workers, both cis-gender and
transgender, met to discuss how working conditions in the sex industry may be improved (Healy,
Pickering, & Hati, 2020) . Male workers also joined these discussions and were involved from the
beginning (Healy, Bennachie, & Reed, 2010) .

Māori sex workers have always formed a large part of NZPC, and have usually held between 30 and
50% of positions on the Board, which governs the broad policies and aims of NZPC, and have
“regarded NZPC as a place of safety” where Māori could “raise [their] concerns and discuss issues
affecting [them] within NZPC” (Healy, Pickering, & Hati, 2020) . While the organisation grew, there
were discussions about what could be done about the colonial laws imported by the British and the
organisation looked to the past leaders for inspiration. During her 1977 mayoral campaign, Carmen
Rupe, a well-known whakawahine (transgender) sex worker, had equated the laws against sex work
as the same as those against men having sex with men, stating the laws criminalising both groups
should be lifted (Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, 2018) . From this, NZPC understood their
organisation was seeking what is now called decriminalisation.

After significant discussions with politicians, the Dean of the Victoria University of Wellington Law
School, and seeking support from other women’s organisations such as the National Council of
Women of New Zealand (NCWNZ, 2001) , the New Zealand Federation of Business and Professional
Women (NZBPW, 2001) , Māori Women’s Welfare League (Māori Women's Welfare League, 2001) ,
YWCA (YWCA, 2001) and others, the Prostitution Reform Bill was finalised (Barnett, Healy, Reed, &
Bennachie, 2010) . This Bill originally consisted of only 11 clauses and aimed to decriminalise all
aspects of sex work, with no specific exclusion of migrant sex workers (Parliamentary Counsel,
2000) . As the Bill processed through Parliament, some changes were made by the Select Committee
considering the Bill, taking it to 36 clauses, such as the clauses on condom use, location and bylaws,
powers of entry and inspection, and the review of the Act among others (Justice and Electoral Select
Committee, 2002) . The Committee of the Whole House also made additions and changes through
Supplementary Order Papers, including restrictions on advertising sexual services, changing and
extending the clause on the location of brothels that was added by the Select Committee.

These additions included Section 19 making it illegal for migrants on temporary visa to work in the
sex industry. This was put forward by Lianne Dalziel, the then Minister of Immigration (Hansard,
Prostitution Reform Bill — In Committee, 2003b) and was added to the bill to “prevent trafficking”
(Hansard, Prostitution Reform Bill — In Committee, 2003b) . This addition was strongly opposed by
NPZC at the time (Healy, Pickering, & Hati, 2020) , which tried in vain to meet with Dalziel at the time
to challenge her amendment. NZPC has been fighting for the inclusion of migrants within the
protection offered by the PRA 2003 ever since, including by participating in collaborative research
projects such as SEXHUM gathering evidence on the negative impact Section 19 has on migrant sex
workers’ rights and lives.

In Aotearoa New Zealand migrant sex worker activists and researchers joined the SEXHUM research
team and gathered the experiences of migrant sex workers in a context of anti-migrant rhetoric and
interventions. This collaborative article co-written with community members shows clearly that
current decriminalizing legislation should be extended to all migrant sex workers to protect their
labour and human rights.

1) Bennachie, Calum, Annah Pickering, Jenny Lee, P. G. Macioti, Nicola Mai, Anne E. Fehrenbacher,
Calogero Giametta, Heidi Hoefinger and Jennifer Musto (2021) ‘Unfinished Decriminalization: The
Impact of Section 19 of the Prostitution Reform Act 2003 on Migrant Sex Workers’ Rights and Lives
in Aotearoa New Zealand’. Social Sciences 10: 179.

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