The Australian Sex Workers’ Association, also known as the Scarlet Alliance, has been advocating for access to 457 skilled worker visas for foreign sex workers. The visa program is for skilled foreign professionals who have been sponsored to work in Australia on a temporary basis, but sex workers are not currently eligible to apply. Scarlet Alliance’s migration program manager Jules Kim claims that this exclusionary is discriminatory. Sex work is indeed legal throughout the country (although the laws regulating it vary by state), but escort or porn star is not currently considered to be a skilled profession like gardener, cook, entertainer, dancer, or any of the 620 other occupations currently covered by the visa.

The Immigration Department argues that ‘sex worker’ is not a skilled profession because it doesn’t require any degree or diploma. According to a spokesman for the department, “It’s not recognized as a trade qualification.” However, Scarlet Alliance informed a recent Senate inquiry that it provides training for workers and offers a diploma in community education. Ms. Kim further elaborates on some of the skills that (full-service) sex work requires: “working with condoms and dams, negotiating prices and services, performing STI (sexually transmitted infection) checks, making risk assessment, and establishing boundaries.”

The 457 visa is stirring up debate over immigration throughout Australia, with many unions arguing that employers use it to bring in foreign workers whom they can then pay less than Australian nationals. The unions characterize this as exploitation, but Ms. Kim argues that not having access to the visas increases immigrants’ chances of exploitation, especially within the sex industry. “The more legal, safe migration pathways you open to people, the less likely they’re going to be vulnerable,” she says. In its submission to the Senate inquiry, Scarlet Alliance further testified that the lack of access to 457 visas has resulted in migrant sex workers being “susceptible to deception and trafficking.”

They elaborate on their website: “The coercive, ‘servile or slave-like ‘conditions that some [migrant] sex workers find themselves in upon arrival are a direct result of the lack of access (perceived or real) to visas and sex workers reliance on third parties to organise travel and workplaces.” Asian women from lower socioeconomic backgrounds have a particularly difficult time gaining access to the visa program, and the illegal status of sex work in many Asian countries in combination with poverty increases the likelihood that these women will try to migrate to Australia. In order to afford them safer migration and working conditions, Scarlet Alliance urges the government to “[give] migrant sex workers rights and legal status through legislation which will increase their power to reject slave-like contracts and conditions.”

There is currently no indication that the visa program will be extended to include sex workers, but an Immigration Department spokesman clarified that foreigners entering the country on a working holiday or student visa were allowed to work in the sex industry while there.