There are growing expectations that governments will respond harshly and swiftly to the latest allegations of human trafficking and sex slavery.
As lawmakers however, we need to ensure that pressure to address these injustices does not lead to us creating a more dangerous working environment for the vast majority of Australia’s sex workers who perform their work safely and legitimately.
Placing tough restrictions on, or criminalising, the industry is not the answer.
The model for sex industry regulation that is increasingly being recognised as world’s best practice for both the human rights and health outcomes for sex workers and their clients is decriminalisation. Both New South Wales and New Zealand’s sex industries are decriminalised.
The current NSW framework was the result of many drivers for change, not least of which was the Wood Royal Commission and the recognition that in a criminalised environment, brothel operators and sex workers had strong motivation to seek out the protection of organised crime and corrupt law enforcement.
Even more importantly, decriminalisation removed the fear of being reported to police and allowed sex workers better access to the kind of health and information services other workers take for granted.
NSW is now a respected world leader with outstanding health achievements such as a 99 per cent rate of condom use amongst sex workers and lower rates of sexually transmitted infections amongst sex workers than in comparable groups in the general community.
These health outcomes are thanks to the work of organisations such as the Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP). SWOP run a variety of health promotion programs and provide outreach to sex workers. They also work with owners to encourage the acceptance and maintenance of safe sex practices, and other forms of workplace health and safety.
SWOP, Scarlet Alliance and other sex industry health experts are alarmed at new speculation the NSW Government will legislate for a ‘Brothel Licensing Authority’.  The evidence against licensing is overwhelming, and we need to slow down and carefully consider what outcomes we want to achieve and how to achieve them.
Licensing schemes create a two-tiered system of legal and illegal brothels, increase illegal sex work, drive workers underground and reduce access to health services and law enforcement. In many cases, licensing will make monitoring of brothels and support for sex workers more difficult, not less.
Currently, brothels are a legitimate commercial land use, and regulated by local government through environmental planning laws. This means organisations like SWOP and the police can easily gain access to most sex workers.
Consider the impact on community health and organised crime if NSW went the way of Queensland where 90% of the sex industry is unlicensed and therefore unregulated, illegal and driven underground.
Globally, the UN is advocating decriminalisation to remove obstacles to effective HIV prevention. In NSW the 2001 ‘Brothels Task Force’ said “… care must be taken to ensure that planning controls do not create barriers to the implementation of effective public health policies and services directed at sex workers in all facets of the sex industry.”
One recent study from 2010, a collaboration between sexual health experts at the Sydney Sexual Health Centre, the National Centre in HIV Epidemiology and Clinical Research, Melbourne Sexual Health Centre and others, assessed the impact of the law on the delivery of health promotion and found that brothel licensing results in the unlicensed sector being isolated from peer education and support.
NSW must avoid a knee-jerk and poorly considered reaction to the appalling crime of sexual slavery, which exists globally regardless of licensing schemes.
Police efforts are better placed investigating and prosecuting sexual slavery and human trafficking, which are already serious crimes, than enforcing new laws which make new criminals. Sexual slavery is a crime – sex work is not.
Similarly, the government should be looking at ways to address the sometimes arbitrary and inconsistent implementation of existing sex industry guidelines across local government, rather than making criminals out of currently law abiding citizens.
The evidence shows that brothel licensing in NSW could have the opposite effect of what is intended. The bottom line is that a licensing scheme is likely to reduce community health, put sex workers in more danger of violence and fail to reduce human trafficking.
 Donovan, B., Harcourt, C., Egger, S., & Fairley, C. K. (2010). Improving the health of sex workers in NSW: maintaining success. NSW Public Health Bulletin, 21, 74–77.
 Sex Workers Outreach Project, Media Release http://www.swop.org.au/sites/default/files/Brothel_Licencing.pdf
 A Schloenhardt & Human Trafficking Working Group, Happy Birthday Brothels: Ten Years of Prostitution Regulation in Queensland, (2009).
 UNAIDS, Guidance Note on HIV and Sex Work, (2009).
& UNAIDS, Report on the global AIDS epidemic 2010, Chapter 5, p137.
 C Harcourt, J O’Connor, S Egger, et. al., ‘The decriminalisation of prostitution is associated with better coverage of health promotion programs for sex workers’, Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, vol 35 (5), (2010).