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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. 

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.

Sex workers in Uruguay, united under a trade union, now have identification cards and more regulated health services options. As many as 1,200 prostitutes now have pension plans and health coverage. 

In the Netherlands, the legalization of brothels in 2000 led directly to the acceptance of prostitutes into country's most powerful trade union federation, FNV. Now, Dutch prostitutes who work in brothels are seen as contracted employees of veritable businesses, with no legal discrepancies or informalities remaining.

Even in countries where sex work is legal, progress is often slow. In India, the Karnataka Sex Workers Union has worked for several years to gain recognition as a legitimate trade union, but prostitutes remain deep within the country's informal, unregulated sector.

In Brazil the inherent linkage between sex work and illegality has led directly to the high level of police and citizen brutality against prostitutes, as well as the stigmatization of the profession. Because pimps pay the police to keep the peace, prostitutes remain unable to report abusive conditions.

And as brothels operate outside of the law’s strictures, regulation of child prostitution and trafficking has also become a pressing issue. According to a study by the ProMundo Institute, sexual exploitation of children and adolescents has risen 58 percent since 2003. Brazil also has the second-worst record on child sex trafficking, surpassed only by Thailand.

Activist argue that as mega-events loom in Brazil’s imminent future — with FIFA’s world cup set to launch in 12 Brazilian cities in 2014, and the 2016 Summer Olympics to take place in Rio de Janeiro — the impending swell of sexual tourism necessitates more robust legislative and unionization opportunities for sex workers.

“Tourism, and particularly tourism related to sports mega-events correlate to increased cases of sexual exploitation in the country, and that’s why so many initiatives are being formed now to stop exploitation in the country beforehand,” said ProMundo’s Gomes.

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In the face of systematic rejection from formal unions and amid widespread public stigma, a group of Brazilian sex workers and advocates have galvanized around an intermediary goal of creating NGO-based networks and resources for prostitutes, focusing on achieving basic citizenship and human rights for sex workers themselves rather than through labor unions.

Led by activist and ex-prostitute Gabriela Leite, whose 2009 autobiography Mother, Daughter, Grandmother, Whore has been turned into a Brazilian Broadway play and is currently being produced into a blockbuster film, they're working to take prostitution out of the shadows of Brazilian society.

These activists look to cultivate an informally unionized body of sex workers who are literate about their rights, who deem themselves worthy of professional status and who are working to fight current stigma against the profession.


When Leite moved to Rio de Janeiro in 1982, she was 32 years old and fell fast in love with Vila Mimosa, the city’s historic red light district. The relentlessly packed streets, at that time set to a samba beat, were hemmed in by the countless cavernous brothels most frequented by Rio's working class population.

She had initially come to work in the touristic and luxurious Copacabana neighborhood, but one day made her way to the North Zone out of curiosity, trading beachfront and chic restaurants for a small, un-air-conditioned room. She ended up spending the next 12 years living and working in Vila Mimosa.

"I prefer working men, factory workers, taxi and truck drivers," she said. "Brazilian men from all regions who fight to survive."

Though the locale has changed and the music has shifted from samba to Brazilian funk, Vila Mimosa still serves as Rio's iconic red light district, the "girl from Ipanema" for the working-class Brazilian. It also remains emblematic of the vast contradictions plaguing the state of sex work in the country, in which a vastly illegal entity is emblematic of a completely legal profession.

During her years in Vila, Leite became increasingly frustrated with police abuses and the fringe nature of her profession. She has spent her career working at the forefront of the movement to tear prostitution free of its current societal role, working to guarantee human rights for prostitutes and instill in them a sense of professional pride.

She, along with her husband, edits the online journal “Street Kiss,” by and for prostitutes, with a readership of over 20,000.

Leite also founded Daspu — a pun on the Portuguese word for "hooker" — the first fashion line by and for prostitutes. Their goal is not to “take anyone out of prostitution ... but to fight for prostitutes’ citizenship, like the right to work for themselves in better conditions, to access public services and other societal goods without discrimination, and for heightened self-esteem.”

In addition to such cultural inroads, Leite founded the nonprofit organization Davida and organized the Network of Brazilian Prostitutes, the first organization to unify sex workers nationwide. In these more official capacities, she has partnered with the Ministry of Health for anti-AIDS campaigns with slogans like, “You have a profession, girl! Don’t be ashamed, so use a condom!”