Belgium’s Groundbreaking Labour Law for Sex Workers: A Step Towards Equity or a New Controversy?

In a historic move, Belgium adopted a law in May 2024 that grants sex workers the same social rights as other employees. This legislation, which allows sex workers to sign job contracts with approved employers, marks an unprecedented effort to regulate the sector. However, not everyone is convinced of its merits, sparking a heated debate about its implications.

A Leap Toward Legal Clarity

For years, hostess bars and erotic massage parlours in Belgium operated in a legal grey area. Often, hostess bars and erotic massage parlours in Belgium paid their sex workers in cash or employed them under misleading waitress contracts. This lack of legal clarity opened doors to abuse and exploitation. Supporters of the new law believe that it provides much-needed legal recognition and protection for sex workers.

Alexandra Moreels, the owner of an erotic salon, expresses her satisfaction in knowing what is legally permissible, as she has always questioned the correctness of her actions. By decriminalising certain forms of pimping, the government aims to impose clear rules on the sector, create statuses adapted to the unique aspects of sex work, and ensure access to unemployment benefits, health insurance, and maternity leave.

Employers must undergo rigorous checks to recruit legally, including criminal record checks, obtaining authorisation to operate, and ensuring their headquarters are in Belgium. They must also respect their employees’ right to refuse a client and stop a sexual act at any time. “The ladies should be able to choose which client they want to work with. That’s already the case here,” says Kris, Alexandra’s husband and co-owner of the salon.

Moving markets

Mixed Reactions and Concerns

Many in the sector hail the reform as a progressive step, but its reception is not unanimous. The law, according to some feminist associations, commodifies women’s bodies and ignores the needs of migrant prostitutes and human trafficking victims who cannot find employment under the new framework. “This will favour pimps and traffickers who already benefit from enormous impunity in Belgium,” warns Mireia Crespo, director of ISALA, an association supporting vulnerable women prostitutes.

Despite these concerns, many professionals believe the reform is a realistic approach to a longstanding issue. “Sex work exists. And if you don’t do it in the open, it will exist underground,” says Karin Van Der Elst, owner of Villa Tinto in Antwerp, a real estate complex where prostitutes can rent windows by the day.

The Road Ahead

Many questions still remain about the new law, and its long-term effects remain uncertain. According to experts, it will take several years to assess its impact on sex workers’ living conditions, as well as on trafficking and pimping.

While the debate continues, Belgium’s new labour law for sex workers represents a bold attempt to bring legal recognition and protection to a marginalised group. Whether it will serve as a model for other countries or face significant hurdles remains an open question. For now, it stands as a significant, albeit contentious, step towards equity in the labour market.


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