Migrant Sex Work: An Intersection of Marginalization

Photo from: https://unsplash.com/photos/j2c7yf223Mk
Photo from: https://unsplash.com/photos/j2c7yf223Mk

Migrant labor is a result of shifting cultural and economic patterns which push workers to migrate to find work across borders.[1] This unique type of migration and the uncertainty inherent to it opens workers to exploitation and precarious situations in unknown places.[2] Despite the risks of poor working conditions, limited social security, and undocumented residence, 169 million people are categorized as migrant workers per the International Labour Organization.[3] Even documented workers face limited access to “civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights.”[4]

Migrant workers are most likely to be employed in low-skilled and low-paid positions which frequently do not reflect their skill level.[5] In the United States, for example, the share of migrant workers with secondary school education is 78%, but only 35% are in high or semi-high skilled jobs.[6] This disparity could be a result of many societal or cultural factors, but the Source attributes it largely to discriminatory hiring practices. This disparity also shows the disadvantages that disproportionately impact migrants. Similarly, migrant workers make less than national workers in every sector, and this is exacerbated for women migrants.[7] In Europe, Israel, and the United States—high income and high migrant in-flow countries—migrant workers are highly concentrated in low skilled positions.[8] Fifty-three percent of migrants work in domestic services, and 27% work in accommodation and food services.[9] Women make up 73%, or 8.45 million, of all migrant domestic workers around the world, most of whom do not enjoy the rights guaranteed to them under international law.[10]

Migrant sex work is an issue to closely examine when looking at migrant labor as a whole, as sex work has the potential to be particularly exploitative depending on the circumstances. Migrant sex workers all over the world reported to the Global Network of Sex Work Projects that they migrated for access to healthcare, to minimize the likelihood of violence at the hands of the state, and to escape punitive sex work laws.[11] Criminalization of sex work was found to be one of the biggest push factors that women take into consideration when looking for opportunities to make a living.[12] In much of Africa, for example, sex work is criminalized and police notoriously take advantage of sex work legislation to “harass and abuse” migrant sex workers there. Targeting by law enforcement adds another layer of vulnerability to these sex worker’s already unstable status as a migrant. Further, criminalization or even decriminalization to an extent can seriously limit sex workers’ likelihood to report violence, non-payment, theft or other crimes.[13] Reluctance to report crime is not a social issue to be taken lightly, as sex work is innately a physically risky profession. For example, 82% of women killed in the UK from 2013 to 2015 were migrant sex workers.[14] The inherent risk of the profession coupled with the unique fear of deportation for undocumented migrants puts migrant sex workers in an exceptionally vulnerable position.

There is another issue implicit in this topic—human trafficking and nonconsensual migrant sex work. Human trafficking and sex work are not the same thing and conflating them as such is damaging to both of these marginalized groups of people. Norway law enforcement will target racial minorities under the guise of combatting human trafficking, Canadian rescue strategies look an awful lot like punishment, and most EU member states use anti-trafficking legislation to limit sex work and migration rather than protecting the rights of people engaging in sex work. Globally, laws which purport to disrupt trafficking are used to evict sex workers and end up limiting migrant sex workers’ ability to work together and support each other.[15] Decreasing pressure on sex workers would likely open up more channels for resources and law enforcement assistance for trafficking victims.

Looking at human trafficking in the context of sex work demands that researchers deal with the issue of consent, and the definition of consent in terms of migrant labor is certainly nuanced. One could argue that someone migrating to be a sex worker because they have no other options for income is not doing so consensually—they are only doing so to prevent themselves/their families from starving to death. That argument may hold up under scrutiny, but it does not resolve the urgent issues facing migrant sex workers today, and addressing the limited access to resources that all sex workers face would be more beneficial than forcing our communities to see all sex work as non-consensual.

Not enough is being done to protect migrant workers, specifically migrant sex workers, and the international community needs to provide more resources towards these issues. Migrants contribute significantly to their destination countries, making up half of the overall job growth in finance, transportation, agriculture, and hospitality in OECD Europe from 2005 to 2018.[16] With this level of contribution, they deserve protection from unfair labor practices and discrimination. Further, migrant sex workers are migrant workers. Many people highlight the morality debate over the needs of these people and prioritizing the morality of sex work over the material needs of the people engaging in sex work is-in and of itself-immoral. The most important way to support sex workers is to allow them access to the resources which every other worker uses to meet their needs.


[1] Int’l Lab. Rts. F., Issues: Migrant Labor, https://laborrights.org/issues/migrant-labor (last visited Mar. 17, 2023).

[2] Id.

[3] Int’l Lab. Org., ILO Global Estimates on I International Migrant Workers 11 (Int’l L. Org., 3d ed. 2019).

[4] Glob. Network of Sex Work Projects, Migrant Sex Workers 1 (2018).

[5] Silas Amo-Agyei, The Migrant Pay Gap: understanding Wage Differences Between Migrants and Nationals 4, 6 (Int’l Lab. Org., 2020).

[6] Id. at 34-36.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Id.  

[10] Id. at 2.  

[11] Glob. Network of Sex Work Projects, supra note 4, at 4-5.

[12] Id.

[13] Glob. Network of Sex Work Projects, supra note 4, at 8.

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Org. for Econ. Coop. & Dev., Int’l migration Outlook 2020 Fig. 3.1 (2020).