New Zealand has been widely praised for it's early adoption of sex work decriminalisation, but insiders argue one group has been left out and exposed to excess risk by conservative legislation. Is it time for change?
Sex work was only a short-term thing for Tali*.
A job she said paid for her grandmother's medical bills and funeral, but also a job that landed her in hot water with Immigration New Zealand, even after she left the profession.
The 30-year-old Thai woman is in a delicate situation, but not an uncommon one, and her advocate Howie Lin believed if he hadn't stepped in she could have been one of the 19 sex workers who were served deportation notices between 2018 and 2021.
In her case, New Zealand Immigration officials received an anonymous tip nearly two years into her living in the country claiming she had been working in the sex industry while holding a student visa.
This meant Tali had fallen foul of a section in the Prostitution Reform Act (PRA) 2003 which states temporary visa holders may not provide commercial sex services or operate or invest in New Zealand commercial sex businesses, while in the country.
At the time, the legislation was framed by some as a means to protect migrant workers from exploitation, however some in the industry believe it has had the opposite effect.
A year after moving to New Zealand, Tali was granted a one-year work visa on the basis of her current parter, and in mid-2021 applied for a partnership-based work visa.
But after this application was initially allowed to proceed, her visa was declined because she had previously provided sexual services while being on a temporary visa.
That decision was appealed, with the woman's lawyer saying punishing someone for a previous occupation was inconsistent with the purpose of the Act, which was created to decriminalise prostitution.
While Tali was granted a six-month visa to allow her time to address any issues and to finalise her outstanding residence application, New Zealand Prostitutes Collective National Coordinator Dame Catherine Healy said her situation was an exception.
"People are generally served [a] deportation liability notice and must go."
Healy has been in contact with Tali, who she said was "devastated" by the impact of her short stint in sex work.
"It just feels the weighting is wrong in this regard. People shouldn't be punished for being sex workers in the context of other parts of their lives."
For many, Healy said, the work was just one element of their lives in New Zealand and some may be studying or working in other areas as well.
"There are vulnerabilities in place already when you're a migrant but to add on to that and to make it difficult for sex workers who are migrants doesn't help their situation."
Healy argued the PRA clause preventing temporary migrants from undertaking sex work was actually "delivering" harm to them and causing "huge amounts" of vulnerabilities.
"It means they have to duck and hide if they do get in trouble, you know, and people do report being targetted.
"It really creates tremendous insecurity for them, that their lives can be overturned on the basis that they are sex workers."
Even at the time the landmark Act was passed, she said, they didn't feel it was a sensible decision.
"Any criminalisation complicates the lives of sex workers and makes it much harder for them to come forward to report exploitation, so it's deeply ironic that this clause sits inside an otherwise good piece of legislation."
A spokesperson for Immigration Minister Michael Wood said the settings under the Act are intended to reduce harm and to protect vulnerable people.
"This is intended to remove any incentive for vulnerable or potentially vulnerable people who could face a greater risk of being trafficked to New Zealand."
They said the industry presents particular challenges when it comes to protecting migrant workers, and economic vulnerability, lack of confidence in the government or Police, and poor English skills can mean pressure to work could be applied.
"There is currently no policy work underway to change these settings ."
"Vulnerable to exploitation"
Speaking to the number of sex workers served deportation notices, Immigration New Zealand verification and compliance general manager Karen Bishop said they address any complaints concerning breaches of minimum employment standards or exploitation of foreign sex workers.
While these matters are treated on a case-by-case basis, she said in some situations the final outcome may be deportation.
"Temporary migrants, who breach their visa conditions by working in the New Zealand sex industry, are vulnerable to exploitation by unscrupulous employers and clients. They are less likely to be aware of their rights and entitlements than their New Zealand colleagues and are unlikely to come forward and complain."
Otago University research found in 2018 the majority of migrant sex workers who participated were in safe employment situations and working to fund study or travel rather than being desperate, exploited or trafficked.
The researchers discovered the biggest stress for the majority of migrant sex workers surveyed was being reported to authorities and deported.
However, it also noted a "small minority" of non-English speaking sex workers interviewed were in vulnerable situations and exploited by disreputable brothel owners.
Last year, US-born researcher Bianca Beebe came forward to the Herald with allegations she was assaulted while working as a migrant sex worker.
Beebe can speak openly now she is a permanent resident, but five years ago, sharing her experience could have got her kicked out of New Zealand.
Although she reported the incident to police, and was reassured that her immigration status was not a concern, she believed most foreign workers would not report being sexually assaulted over fears they would be deported.
She also believed migrant sex workers were specifically preyed upon due to their vulnerable status.
"Rapists are not exclusively stupid, rapists are aware of the law, so they explicitly target migratory workers."
The push for change
In March, Pandora Black filed a petition to parliament calling for the section prohibiting migrant sex workers to be repealed.
In the petition, Black wrote that criminalising sex work helped no one, and New Zealand has seen the benefits of decriminalisation and a human rights based approaches to sex work for residents.
"Yet migrant sex workers are still vulnerable to coercion, exploitation and abuse by clients, managers and police due to their illegal status, as reporting such incidents may result in deportation and a conviction which may prevent future travel," the petition says.