Decriminalizing sex work is a first step towards assuring rights and recognition for sex workers in Belgium — but it is not a silver bullet

Each year, International Sex Workers Day celebrates sex workers’ resistance to the stigmatization, criminalization, and exploitation they face. This year, to commemorate the event, a seminar at the ISS discussed how sex workers’ advocacy resulted in the recent decriminalisation of sex work in Belgium. In this article, Marianne Chargois, Daan Bauwens, and Karin Astrid Siegmann discuss which further changes need to be made to ensure the dignity and rights of sex workers in Belgium.

Image by UTSOPI

We celebrated the week that concludes with International Sex Workers’ Day with an ISS seminar in which I, Marianne Chargois, member of the executive team of the Belgian sex worker union Utsopi, delivered a presentation titled “Swimming against the tide: Decriminalization of sex work in Belgium”. Decriminalization, a regulatory model that sees sex work as a regular profession and abolishes all laws that criminalize prostitution directly or indirectly, has been considered the best way to govern sex work because it helps protect sex workers’ health and well-being, enhances their access to services and justice, makes the industry safer, and, overall, improves the guarantee of sex workers’ human rights (Oliveira et al. 2023).


Until June last year, Belgian law criminalized services and third parties supporting sex work based on the understanding that all sex workers are victims of exploitation and human trafficking, independent of their own view of or consent to their situation. This could lead to bizarre situations where a sex worker’s accountant or even his or her child — basically anyone supporting sex workers — could be, accused of ‘profiting from the exploitation of sex work’ and could be fined or imprisoned for pimping.


Decriminalization is an important first victory

Utsopi has fought against these stipulations since 2015, and last year, the union won! Taking a seat at the negotiating table in the Belgian Ministry of Justice first of all made it possible for sex workers to argue that sex workers can give consent, stopping the infantilization of those working in the ‘adult industry’.


The revised law also defines pimping more clearly, so that normal economic transactions are not targeted anymore. Instead, the criminalized aspects are now more narrowly defined as the ‘abnormal profits and advantages from the organization of prostitution’ or the organization of sex work in disrespect of sex workers’ labour rights. In contrast to the earlier version of the law, this does not threaten consenting sex workers’ livelihoods. Rather, it enables them to access necessary things that are normal for all other workers, such as having a bank account, housing, or other basic needs.


But much still needs to be done

Yet, while important, decriminalization is just the first step towards the improved rights and recognition of sex workers — many other things still have to change. For instance, stigmatization and discrimination involve such high levels of symbolic as well as physical violence that the large majority of sex workers refrain from divulging that they do sex work. These hidden lives expose them to greater risk of exploitation, abuse, and blackmailing.


Broader social protection is required

Besides, Utsopi and its partner organizations are working with the government on the concluding phase of a labour law for the right to have an employment contract and guaranteed social rights. Directly after the reform in 2022, only independent sex work was possible in Belgium. Working as employees would enable sex workers to start benefiting from social security. This would for instance enable sex workers to go on early maternity leave, but also to cover their risks, which include sexually transmitted diseases, but also other risks that they face such as harassment or discrimination based on the sex work.


Cooperation from municipalities is essential

Apart from the national legislation, local governments can make it difficult to carry out sex work by imposing restrictive conditions. For example, some municipalities require sex workers to register, and locations for sex work often have to comply with specific regulations. Presently, there is still a lack of spaces to work legally and under decent conditions. Shared spaces, brothels self-managed by sex workers, or other possibilities still need to be created and guaranteed.


Migrant sex workers need to be included

Finally, maintaining a certain level of tolerance in sex work regulation remains necessary even after it has been decriminalized. Most sex workers cannot access existing legal entitlements. For undocumented migrants, for example, the lack of residence or work permits implies that abuses can go unreported out of fear of deportation. In fact, no decriminalization process is complete without entitling undocumented sex workers to rights. This also points to the ‘unfinished decriminalization’ of sex work in New Zealand. Being the first country to decriminalize sex work in 2003, New Zealand still excludes migrant sex workers from the ambit of the Prostitution Reform Act.


A regulatory ‘grey zone’ remains necessary

One complication related to the protection of sex workers’ rights is that for some, sex work is a backup to make ends meet in an emergency. This implies that these persons do not consider themselves sex workers and are, consequently, unlikely to claim associated rights and entitlements. To address these additional complications that sex workers face, a certain regulatory ‘grey zone’ remains necessary.


The decriminalization of sex work is not a silver bullet

These learnings from the Belgian experience add nuance and realism to the idea of decriminalization as the silver bullet for ensuring decent work for sex workers. Marjan Wijers, consultant, researcher, and activist in the field of human trafficking and sex workers’ rights, echoed this when discussing the Belgian reform. She highlighted the paradox that decriminalizing brothel-based sex work in the Netherlands in 2000 ushered in an even more restrictive legal environment for sex workers now based on administrative law.

Still, on International Sex Workers’ Day, Belgium’s ‘swimming against the tide’ was an apt celebration of sex workers’ agency to successfully challenge the legal and societal structures that marginalize and stigmatize them!

Note: Thanks to Silke Heumann and Maria Ines Cubides Kovacsics for their helpful feedback on and suggestions for improvement of this post.

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Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.

About the authors:

Marianne Chargois is a member of the executive team of the Belgian sex worker union Utsopi.







Daan Bauwens is the Utsopi director.


Karin Astrid Siegmann is Associate Professor in Labour and Gender Economics at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS).

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Addressing the deadly impacts of heatwaves in Europe – The European Union Must Do More

This year in June and July (and into this month of August), a global heatwave led to an increase in deaths and disasters. Several European countries were largely impacted, including the Netherlands, France, Portugal, and Spain. In this blog, we (Shellan Saling and Sylvia I. Bergh) review the European Union’s (EU) policy response to heatwaves, and argue for a more active role for the EU in coordinating national efforts to develop heat-health action plans (HHAPs).  

The death tolls of past and future heatwaves

The current heatwave is not the first one. In 2003, an extreme heatwave killed over 70,000 people across Europe. Certain population groups – such as the elderly, people with disabilities, youth, ethnic and racial minorities, and those experiencing homelessness – are especially vulnerable. These groups, as well as pregnant women, young children, and people with chronic conditions such as cardio-vascular diseases, are at higher risk of suffering from reduced physiological and behavioral capacity for thermoregulation, for example due to a limited capacity to sweat. Socio-economically disadvantaged people also have limited access to information sources where health warnings are shared and awareness is raised about how to protect oneself from the heat. More recently, the 2019 summer heatwaves affected Europe, more specifically France, Belgium, and the Netherlands with over 2500 deaths.

Unfortunately, future prospects are bleak. Researchers at the Joint Research Centre of the European Commission predict that assuming present vulnerability and no additional adaptation, annual fatalities from extreme heat in 2100 could rise from 2,750 deaths now to 30,000 at 1.5°Celsius global warming, 52,000 at 2°C, and 96,000 at 3°C. The highest number of fatalities are expected to occur in France, Italy, and Spain. Given these dramatic figures, effective policy response from the European Union is urgent.


The EU’s policy response

The origins of the EU’s policy response can be traced back to the aftermath of the 2003 heatwaves, whose death toll sent shockwaves throughout Europe and prompted immediate action to develop national heat-health action plans (HHAPs). At the EU level, and the European Commission and European Environmental Agency (EEA) in particular, HHAPs fall under the health domain. Hence, the EU has worked closely with the World Health Organisation (WHO) on HHAPs beginning with the EuroHeat project, which identified eight core elements of HHAPs in 2008. They include an agreement on a lead body, accurate and timely alert systems, a heat-related health information plan, a reduction in indoor heat exposure, particular care for vulnerable population groups, preparedness of the health and social care system, long-term urban planning, and real-time surveillance and evaluation.

However, apart from issuing guidance, the EU has lacked a major role in mitigating the impacts of heatwaves. The question remains about why it does not play a more active role in mitigating the effects of heatwaves and in formulating heat-health policy.

We tried to answer this question as part of a wider study on HHAPs in France and The Netherlands, conducted as part of the first author’s Research Paper in the context of her International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) MA degree. The study was carried out in collaboration with an applied research project led by the second author. The findings are based on desk reviews and interviews with experts and policymakers.


Obstacles to a more effective EU response

We found that heatwaves and climate change in general fall under several different policy arenas including climate mitigation, adaptation, social policy, and health. This fragmentation limits the EU’s actions on heatwaves. In addition, categorising HHAPs as falling in the health domain makes it challenging for the EU to act because of their existing laws and regulations. According to the mandates specified in the Maastricht Treaty (European Union Treaty) and its Article 129(4), the European Union is allowed to spend money on European Union level health projects, but is not allowed to harmonise public health measures in member states.  The Amsterdam Treaty and the Lisbon Treaty (article 152(7)) provided further updates making it clear that health policy is the responsibility of EU member states.

Recent progress on climate change policy has been made within the European Union with the EU Green Deal. A key component, Regulation 2018/1999 of the European Parliament (known as the European Climate Law issued in 2021) established the framework for achieving climate neutrality. However, this regulation does not specifically discuss or call for national HHAPs.

Hence, there is currently no institution within the EU responsible for monitoring the heat-health action plans or heat health policy of member states more generally because under the EU’s limited mandate, it cannot enforce the HHAPs in the member states. Also, it is not in the EEA’s mandate to provide a framework for policy action in this area, and they cannot lobby or influence the EU member states much.


Sharing knowledge and funding research is good but not enough

Therefore, the main role the EU continues to have is to create and share knowledge with and between the member states. The EuroHEAT project mentioned earlier was co-funded by the European Commission (EC) Directorate-General for Health and Consumers. It quantified the health effects of heat in European cities and identified options for improving health systems’ preparedness for and response to the effects of heatwaves. By coordinating with the WHO European Region, the project led to the first framework for HHAPs. In addition, through the European Environmental Agency (EEA), in 2012 the EU has set up knowledge and research databases available on the European Climate Adaptation Platform (Climate-ADAPT), which contain a host of data on climate and health (among other topics), including case studies on the impact of heatwaves on vulnerable populations and policy measures taken. In early 2021, the EU climate law led to the establishment of the European Climate and Health Observatory. It is managed jointly by the European Commission and the EEA as part of Climate-ADAPT. However, the Observatory has yet to increase its staffing to be fully operational.

Two other recent research and policy development projects funded by the EU were HEAT-SHIELD (a Horizon 2020 research project addressing the negative impact of increased workplace heat stress on the health and productivity of five strategic European industries) and the SCORCH (the Supportive Risk Awareness and Communication to Reduce impact of Cross-Border Heatwaves) project, which have generated useful academic and policy outputs.

However, besides investing in research and policy development, we believe that going forward, the EU should take a more active role in coordinating national efforts to develop HHAPs. For example, in our interviews, we found that there is a lack of communication between the national policymakers who work on heatwaves across the EU, and a desire for more exchanges on best practices. This could be addressed by funding targeted projects under relevant EU programs such as Interreg Europe. We also believe that it would be desirable for the EU to have a stronger role in monitoring the quality of the various HHAPs (using the elements in the WHO framework) and ensuring that they are integrated with other relevant (national and EU) polices on disaster risk reduction or national environmental planning.

Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.

About the authors:

Shellan Saling is a recent graduate from the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) where she received her MA in Development Studies majoring in Governance and Development Policy. Her research paper (thesis) was on climate adaptation policies, and specifically on national heat-health action plans and heat-health policy within the EU.



Sylvia I. Bergh, Associate Professor in Development Management and Governance, International Institute of Social Studies (ISS), Erasmus University Rotterdam (EUR), and Senior researcher, Centre of Expertise on Global Governance, The Hague University of Applied Sciences (THUAS).


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