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EU: Prostitutes Win Case Before European Court Of Justice

The European Court of Justice has ruled that prostitutes from Eastern European countries can work legally in any European Union country -- as long as they are self-employed and prostitution is tolerated there.

Prague, 22 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The case was brought before the European Court of Justice two years ago by four Czech and two Polish prostitutes working in the Netherlands.

The women had rented "window rooms" in Amsterdam's red-light district -- a common practice that lets prostitutes sit on display to attract passing customers. They declared their salaries and paid tax on their monthly earnings of some 1,800 guilders, or $720.

But then, four years ago, the Dutch Justice Ministry refused to grant them work permits. The ministry argued that prostitution is not a socially acceptable form of work and therefore not a regular job.

The authorities also doubted that one of the women was genuinely resident in the Netherlands, since she worked there for 10 days each month and returned home to the Czech Republic for the rest of the year.

The women filed a lawsuit with a Dutch court, which found in their favor. The court pointed out that the authorities had earlier given a residency permit to an Italian prostitute in order to allow her to work and had therefore recognized prostitution as an economic activity.

But the Justice Ministry again turned the women down. This time, they took their case to the European Court of Justice, the court of the European Commission.

Poland and the Czech Republic have association agreements with the EU that allow their citizens to legally set up businesses there. Poland signed its agreement in 1993, the Czech Republic in 1994. The other EU candidate countries with such agreements are Slovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria, Slovenia, Romania, Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia.

If the agreements apply to other trades and services, the women argued, why not to prostitution, which the Netherlands has long tolerated and last year even legalized?

The court agreed.

The judges said prostitutes from candidate countries can work in any EU member state where prostitution is tolerated -- as long as they are genuinely self-employed, have the means to set up their business, and have a reasonable chance of success.

The judges said it is up to member states to decide whether to allow the practice of what might be considered an immoral activity.

In their judgement, the judges said: "The activity of prostitution pursued in a self-employed capacity can be regarded as a service provided for remuneration."

Will this ruling open the floodgates to prostitutes from Eastern Europe hoping to set up shop in the Netherlands?

Christy Ten Broeke thinks not. She's the spokeswoman for Rode Draad (Red Thread), a labor union for sex workers in the Netherlands. She says many people are already getting the wrong impression about the court ruling: "We hope that women are getting the right information because now the rumor is already spreading that everybody can work here, and that's not true."

In fact, she says, women still have to clear several hurdles before they can be legal, self-employed "sex workers" in the Netherlands.

"First of all, the ruling only states that, by definition, women will not be denied [work permits] automatically. The moment they come to Holland, the immigration and naturalization office will still have to decide on each individual case if they meet the criteria. And those criteria might be a little bit higher than those set by the judges for the tax authorities. So it's not the easiest thing for them to get a permit to stay here in Holland and work here."

She continues: "To be able to prove that you're independent, you have to have a minimum income the moment you come here. You have to have a business plan [like] any other entrepreneur would have to. We have a union especially for sex workers, and we would strongly urge women to get registered there, as well, because that is one of the very few ways that they can prove that they are really self-employed and independent."

But Ten Broeke says the ruling could help prostitutes become legal and avoid the trade's associated dangers -- such as trafficking: "Sometimes women wanted to work in the sex industry, but they ended up with a large debt and ended up in trafficking. So for those women, if they started to work independently, it would give them more opportunities to talk to the authorities about health organizations and to do the work that they want to [do]. For all victims of trafficking who do not want to work in the sex industry, there is now and will be the possibility to go to the police without any fear."

Ten Broeke says it is difficult to determine how many women from Eastern Europe might be working as prostitutes in the Netherlands. But she says the two administrative members of her union who speak Russian, Bulgarian or Polish are kept "very busy."