SWARM and ECP submitted the following statement to Leeds Council regarding the possible closure of the Leeds ‘managed zone’, in which sex workers are able to solicit for business in a designated area without fear of arrest. A meeting will be held on Weds 14th November to evaluate.
We send greetings and solidarity to sex workers earning their living in the Holbeck managed area. We are outraged at the way these workers have been disrespected and disparaged in a hate campaign fuelled by the media.
The zone is situated in an area that has been deprived of resources and where many people are suffering from benefit cuts and other austerity measures. We hear the concerns of local residents but this is a time for solidarity; sex workers in the managed zone are also part of the community and have been working in Holbeck for at least 15 years, long before the zone was implemented.
Regulation via zoning is not ideal but any solution which increases safety for sex workers, allows them to report crimes and brings down the number of arrests is important.
Working without fear of arrest means sex workers aren’t running from the police are more able to use basic safety measures like working in close proximity to each other and sharing information about clients. This should considered as a priority by Leeds Council.
According to sex worker outreach charity Basis Yorkshire - which has worked tirelessly to support workers in the area - 97% of sex workers are now willing to report crimes to the police, compared with just 7% before the scheme launched. There has been a dramatic uptake in engagement with health and support services, vital for members of the community who sell sex.
Poverty is the driving factor behind prostitution. In an interview with Buzzfeed, a woman called Sarah described how she started working in the area to support her three children after being made redundant.
"Kids shouldn’t have to be worrying about where your next meal is coming from, about bills, or if you’ve got clean clothes,” she said.
Sarah said media reports of the area were inaccurate. “People think it’s 90% drug users of crack or heroin and 10% clean, but it’s the opposite. It's the other way around with everyone I know.”
Another woman, Laura, had escaped from a violent relationship and was now supporting four children.
If the zone is closed down, can Leeds Council promise sex workers like Sarah and Laura a viable alternate source of income? It is the council’s responsibility to help with problems related to poverty, violence and drug use.
The council must also hold the government to account. Since 2010, 86% of the burden of austerity has fallen on women. Reports from Doncaster suggest a 60% increase in prostitution with charities saying: “Women are being forced to sell sex for £5 because of benefit sanctions.”
Sheffield reports a 166% increase, while charity workers in Hull report: “women who are literally starving and they are out there to feed themselves.”
If the managed zone is closed down women won’t be able to stop working. They will be forced to work in even more isolated areas to avoid detection by the police and will be less able to screen clients who fear arrest. This undermines women’s safety. Sex workers will once again face arrest. Migrant and transwomen our often particularly targeted by police crackdowns. Having a criminal record bars access to other jobs and prevents women leaving prostitution. Is this what Leeds Council wants?
The group calling for the zone’s closure - ‘Save Our Eyes’, a name which is, in itself, telling of a particular set of priorities - has laid out the reasons for its anger but has made no mention of how it envisages the protection of community members who sell sex. What concrete proposals does it have for women like Sarah who work in the zone to feed their children?
The concerns of residents are valid and we stand with any working class community which calls for better living conditions. However, sex workers are human beings. If the zone is closed down, Leeds council must vouch for the safety and survival of the sex workers who will be displaced.
QUESTIONS FOR COUNCIL:
If the zone is closed down, can Leeds Council promise those working in the area a viable, alternate source of income?
If the zone is closed down, can Leeds Council promise that outdoor sex workers won’t face arrest?
How is Leeds Council planning to support sex workers in the area?
How is Leeds council facilitating dialogue between workers/services and residents to deal with any issues?
A lot of conflict seems to be around residents and workers not knowing where the boundaries of the zone are. Have the police and council done enough to educate and inform people of this?
Can the council reassure local people and the public generally that moves to close down the zone or not driven by a desire to gentrify the area which would result in working-class people, including sex workers, being driven out?
Can the council publicly clarify whether Save Our Eyes has links with property development in Leeds and, specifically, in Holbeck?