On May Day, for the sixth year in a row, sex workers in Mexico City marched to demand their labor rights and celebrate the fact that, after two years of struggle, the city government recognized them as non-salaried workers this past February.
“What does sex work require?” chanted the approximately 200 sex workers.
“Respect!” they called back.
As they marched from La Merced, one of the neighborhoods in the city where much of the work occurs, to Constitution Plaza, many women wore carnival costumes and surgical masks. Others waved condoms blown up into balloons and held posters reading, “Full labor rights for sex workers.”
Although the women are working in what is regarded as the oldest profession in the world, their recent campaign to be legally recognized as non-salaried workers took two years and a massive civil rights case.
“We have marched for years so that our jobs could be recognized as other jobs are,” said Elvira Madrid, president of the Brigada Callejera organization and a member of the Mexican sex worker network. “This past February, we presented a landmark constitutional rights trial and we won it, and now we are recognized as non-salaried workers.”
The court case and the campaign helped create a legal separation between voluntary sex work and illegal crimes like child sex trafficking, which many of the women said was absolutely necessary.
“There needs to be a distinction between exploitation and sex work,” said Rebeca Alejandra, who has been working in sex work for seven years and feels proud to celebrate this recognition, especially after facing discrimination from some of her neighbors. “[There is a difference] between those who are minors or who are forced into this work, and those who are here of their own accord.”
Fifty-six-year-old Almadelia, a transgender sex worker, said that, in addition to celebrating an historic triumph, they must continue to work to organize themselves into unions.
“We will keep fighting for recognition as sex workers and transgendered people,” Almadelia said, noting especially the need to fight against the imposition of laws that stop them from working in public.
The struggle for labor rights for Mexico’s sex workers stretches back at least 25 years. Each year, they hold a national conference where they identify their demands and brainstorm strategies to achieve them.
“We have been organizing ourselves for 25 years! We are very clear about what we want and where we are headed,” shouted Elvira Madrid into a loudspeaker during the march. “Whose corner is it, ladies?”
“Those who work it!” the crowd shouted back.
The workers said that harassment by neighbors and illegal detention by the police is still common, although the legal recognition of their labor rights has helped.
“Now if a police officer takes one of us away, he is the one who will go to jail, because now it has been proved that sex work is a profession under the law,” said Nayley, a transgender sex worker from the sex work cooperative Angels in Search of Freedom. “Clients are blackmailed by the police and then they complain to us, and sometimes we lose customers. We want the police to do their job well, just like us,” Nayley added.
The next step, according to many of the workers, is to continue to fight for increased labor rights, such as union protections and better pay.
In an interview, Madrid was careful to draw the distinction between being physically forced to work, such as in a situation of sex trafficking, and being financially compelled to work in this profession. “The goddamn obligation,” she said, “comes from the miserable wages that we earn, when as heads of households we go to the supermarket and can’t even afford the basics. The misery is the dirty sheets from the hotel rooms, the poor support we get in terms of medical services,” she said. “Now we are working towards unionizing, because we need to improve these working conditions.”
Behind her, as the march continued, the workers shouted: “High heels united will never be defeated!”
Translation from the original Spanish by Lela Singh.