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From May Day to Labor Day, GlobalPost explores the human cost of what's been called a "race to the bottom." The hyper-accelerated movement of capital, jobs and resources from the world's corporations — manufacturing, agriculture and service — to the lowest bidder. In an era of diminished expectations, broken promises and sleight of hand, these are labor stories of governments, employers, unions and workers. 

Brazil prostitutes Vila Mimosa
Female prostitutes walk the streets of the red light district, Vila Mimosa, following a fashion show with clothes designed by sex workers on December 11, 2009 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Spencer Platt/AFP/Getty Images)

Technically legal, Brazil’s sex workers left out of unionization push

Though legally recognized professionals, the country's prostitutes have been unable to win labor rights.

RIO DE JANEIRO — It's a Saturday night under Rio’s historic Lapa Arches and, despite the tropical drizzle, weekend revelers pack the streets. Nestled between Santa Teresa's bohemian foothills and the city's industrial downtown, the Lapa neighborhood works nightly to defend its reputation for the best street parties in Brazil, replete with dirt-cheap caipirinhas by the half-liter and "dirty foot" dance clubs lining the streets.

Rosa M. works two floors up form the street-level chaos, doubling as a prostitute and a bathroom attendant at one of Lapa's many nightclubs.

Ostensibly, her job is to pass out paper towels and direct patrons to available stalls, though it is here that she meets and conducts the majority of her sexual exchanges. She wears blue jeans, a collared shirt and almost no makeup.

Unlike many of her fellow sex workers, Rosa works "freelance" — she doesn't rent out a brothel room or work under a pimp or madame, arrangements that bring protection but remain illegal in Brazil. Though the exchange of sex for money has been technically legal since 1949, sexual commerce remains embedded deep within society's informal sector, seen as a disreputable “spot job,” as Rosa says, rather than a profession deserving of corresponding rights.

While other industries have unionized and steadily built up worker protections, Brazil’s sex workers have been unable to follow suit as they have in other countries where the sex trade has been legalized, plagued by social stigma and strict laws around prostitution.

“Sex professionals' daily lives are still replete with violations of basic human rights.”
~Simone Gomes, ProMundo Institute

"It's lonely and can be scary; I haven't been at it long," Rosa told me. "I hear a lot about police brutality … but I have been lucky. I have kids; I don't want to be doing this forever ... I go by the law."

As Rosa spoke, she looked around, speaking in hushed tones. But why the attitude of secrecy when prostitution has long been legal in Brazil? 

“Look, this isn’t the type of spot job you want to be caught doing,” she replied.

Despite sixty years of legality in Brazil, sex work remains one of the most dangerous, stigmatized and unstable livelihoods in the country.

"Prostitution is still highly criminalized in Brazil," said Simone Gomes, a representative for the ProMundo Institute, based jointly in Brazil and Washington, DC. "Sex professionals' daily lives are still replete with violations of basic human rights."

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Prostitutes can't apply for pensions or retirement funds, nor can they receive other forms of government regulation, like identification cards or regularly scheduled health checks. With limited access to health services and given the nature of their work, female sex workers’ estimated HIV infection rate is 14 times higher than the rate for Brazilian women at large.

Brazil's union federations have routinely turned away sex worker groups as “non-workers,” refusing to recognize sex work as a legitimate profession worthy of mobilization, collective bargaining or strike potential, despite the fact that sex work has been included in the Ministry of Employment’s list of professions for almost a decade.

Thus women like Rosa have found themselves in a nebulous loophole of tacit criminality from which escape is extremely difficult.


In 2002, a São Paulo-based prostitute attempted to create the first Brazilian trade union for sex workers, but it failed to get off the ground due to "juridical issues…and public stigma," according to an interview with its founder in Problems of Brazil magazine.

In 2003, Congressman Fernando Gabeira worked with activists to introduce an amendment to the Brazilian Penal Code — a document that has remained unchanged since 1940 that would bring sex work under formal channels of operation. Sex worker collectives would also be legalized and regulated, creating a legal labor relationship that could be monitored for abuses.

In its first appearance on a national level, the Penal Code amendment bill was shot down on a technicality without going to a vote, and has been in and out of parliamentary discussion for the better part of the decade. It hasn't reappeared in Congress since 2009.

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Elsewhere in South America, Uruguay, Ecuador and Bolivia have begun the process of unionizing sex work and thereby bringing the profession into the formal economy.

In Bolivia, over 45,000 sex workers have been formally registered with the government. Among other benefits, they receive weekly check-ups and health examinations free of cost. Currently, unionized sex workers have organized a hunger strike to end the country's month-long doctor’s strike, which has affected their regularly scheduled visits. The strike has garnered international attention