Geneva is one of the world’s most expensive cities, where a room in the center of town rents for $3,000 a month. Given such a steep price, what’s a working person to do?Fed up with the exorbitant rent she pays for her workspace, Geneva resident Angelina became proactive: last month, she formed a trade union for self-employed contractors like herself. The organization, the first of its kind in Switzerland, represents several hundred members of the world’s oldest profession: sex workers.
A handful of European cities have similar unions, but since Switzerland has some of the most liberal prostitution laws in the world, it is a mecca for foreign sex workers, mostly from South America, Eastern Europe, and EU nations. The Sex Workers’ Syndicate, as the new union is called, will liaise with city authorities to improve work conditions and the earning potential of Geneva’s 800 registered prostitutes.
In the past several years, the number of “official” sex workers in the country has increased to 14,000, not including specially trained “sexual assistants” for disabled people. As other countries are cracking down on their sex industry–Amsterdam’s authorities are closing hundreds of notorious windows in its red-light district, and France’s new socialist government plans to outlaw prostitution – sex professionals are seeking better opportunities in Switzerland. Another perk is that citizens of European Union don’t need a work permit for the first three months, as long as they register with local police and comply with tax laws.
Affluent and willing customers are another incentive: according to Don Juan, an information health service for “consumers of sex,” one in five Swiss men between 20 and 65 – the second highest rate in Europe – visit a prostitute at least once in their lives.
That may be why the Swiss have taken a pragmatic approach to prostitution: legalize it and bring it out into the open, so it can be regulated and controlled to prevent exploitation, human trafficking, sexually transmitted diseases, links with criminal networks, and other problems that are rife in nations where sex commerce is forbidden.
As a result of this liberal policy, there is no stigma attached to sex work in Switzerland; in fact, it is considered a legitimate service industry, whose members pay taxes and contribute to their Social Security funds. But unlike their counterparts in other sectors, they must register with public health authorities and undergo regular health checks. “We’ve always tried to create a welcoming and safe environment for legal sex workers,” Patrick Pulh, a spokesman for Geneva’s police force tells TIME.
Angelina, who uses only one name professionally, hails from Colombia and has been plying her trade in Geneva for the past six years. She says that local prostitutes have mostly positive interactions with the law enforcement. But despite Switzerland’s protections, she says that sex work is not easy street: unscrupulous landlords charge extremely high rents for premises in the city’s red-light district of Paquis. Another common complaint is the unfair competition from undocumented foreign prostitutes who undercut the official minimum rate of $100 for basic services. “These girls charge less but also have lower standards,” Angelina claims. “The livelihood of those who work legally is impacted, and so is the quality of service clients receive from the ‘cheaper’ women.”
Similar complaints have been voiced in Zurich, Switzerland’s largest city and undisputed sex capital, where, according to police figures, there are 11 prostitutes per 1,000 residents – one of the highest ratios in the industrialized world. It is no secret that the city’s largest brothel is owned by a local politician, a member of the city council in the Zurich suburb of Uetikon. According to a recent article in the Tages Anzeiger newspaper, he charges sex workers just over $100 a day for rooms used for “erotic services.”
But Zurich prostitutes will soon have brand new digs. Next spring, the city will construct a series of drive-in garages on the outskirts of town, where sex workers can receive their clients discreetly, away from residential neighborhoods. Earlier this year, Zurich voters approved their municipal council’s proposal to build these so-called “sex boxes,” allocating $2.4 million of public funds for the project, which will be monitored by social services and offer on-site medical care.
Over in Geneva, Angelina has already used her new status as head of the union to set up an appointment with the mayor to discuss ways of improving the members’ work conditions, and especially the rent issue. She also plans to organize free French language courses for foreign sex workers “so that they can integrate and communicate with more ease.” Those are, apparently, union rules.