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Queenstown and Wānaka brothel zones could be extended, prompts call for better sex worker safety

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Two of New Zealand’s most luxurious getaway locations could soon have extended brothel zones.

Proposed brothel bylaw revisions in Queenstown and Wānaka, which would see the areas where certified brothels could operate expanded, have prompted a call for greater consideration of sex worker rights.

Submissions to Queenstown Lakes District Council (QLDC) on proposed changes that would widen the area in which brothels are allowed to operate in both Queenstown and Wānaka are currently open.

The move comes as part of a review of the Brothel Control Bylaw 2017.

The current bylaw heavily restricts where a brothel is allowed to operate, including a required 100m distance between brothels and a ban from operating at or below ground level or anywhere outside of the Queenstown and Wānaka CBDs.

Aotearoa New Zealand Sex Workers’ Collective spokeswoman Dame Catherine Healy told the Herald that while it was heartening to see QLDC take a more realistic approach to the location of sex-work venues, the preferred option would sadly not do anything to accommodate individual sex workers who “would like to be treated like any other home-based occupation”.

She said it was good to see QLDC following the liberal approach of other councils, but it was not as fast “or appropriate” as the collective would like.

“It’s disappointing, really,” Healy said.

“The review is good and there was optimism from our side that the council would finally see the light. But it seems like they’re going through a slight improvement, but not one that’s going to address the deep concern for the individual sex workers who don’t work or can’t afford to work in the commercial zones and want to be self-governing.”

The proposed changes outlined in the draft bylaw focus on several key areas, including redefining allowable locations for brothels, addressing restrictions on brothel signage and seeking community feedback on the proposed amendments.

Amendments include expanding permitted activity areas, introducing a new purpose provision consistent with the PRA and removing certain location restrictions within the permitted areas.

There have been no registered brothels in Queenstown since 2013. Photo / 123rf
There have been no registered brothels in Queenstown since 2013. Photo / 123rf

“Most sex workers actually manage their own sex work these days … To do that, they really need the option to work in residential areas from their own homes. To take that option away, or not even provide it as an option, that really undermines their safety … They’ll do it without a sense of being protected by the bylaw,” said Healy.

She said she had heard from several sex workers in the Queenstown area who would like to submit in the consultation but were concerned about entering the public eye.

Sex work has been a legal occupation in New Zealand for two decades under the Prostitution Reform Act 2003 (PRA), which is subject to the same laws that regulate other businesses and workers but with additional requirements aimed at protecting sex workers and their clients.

Under the PRA, there are provisions that local councils may either manage a brothel using the District Plan or adopt a bylaw to manage a brothel’s signs and/or manage the location of a brothel, with QLDC being one of seven councils that regulate the location of brothels through a bylaw.

Brothel operators, apart from small owner-operated brothels (SOOBs), are required under the PRA to hold a valid brothel operator certificate issued via the Ministry of Justice. Police may inspect brothels to ensure compliance with the PRA’s welfare requirements and certificates must be renewed every year.

Dame Catherine Healy said the proposed changes do not go far enough. Photo / Rebekah Parsons-King, RNZ
Dame Catherine Healy said the proposed changes do not go far enough. Photo / Rebekah Parsons-King, RNZ

QLDC councillor Lyal Cocks said brothels were essentially small businesses and believed they should be treated as such.

He opposed the decision to renew the bylaw, saying he would prefer to see brothels managed through the district plan.

Cocks said this was based on the fact there were no registered brothels in the QLDC area since 2013.

“You get all the debate about what area they can and can’t be in when it’s all quite clearly laid out in the district plan … They are small businesses, being treated differently to other small businesses who can also create disturbances or nuisances.”

QLDC councillor Lisa Guy said she would prefer a cautious approach, putting focus on the identification of sensitive areas, and encouraged further national investigation into the operation of SOOBs and the impact that has had on the industry since the reform of legislation.

“I am not opposed to SOOBs, but I am weary of the unintended consequences of extending the zones where there they can be established into areas which are currently green field sites,” she said.

“With our local high turnover of travelling young people, there may be coercion to join a SOOB, with scouts targeting rangatahi to work, with examples of this happening through meetings in social, casual settings, such as interactions in night clubs, with the promise of easy cash and limits to what they will be required to do.”

She said she had little faith that all SOOBs were owner-operated with full control over their earnings without undue external influence.

“Anecdotally there is evidence to the contrary,” she said.

In a submission to the council, Te Whatu Ora Health NZ said it did not support the current approach of limiting where brothels could operate.

“We believe this puts prostitution at risk of operating outside the law and in doing so gives rise to serious health and safety risks … We would support a permissive approach that has exclusions for sensitive areas or situations that have the potential to give rise to nuisance.”

Two business owners in the proposed zone in Wānaka said they were not concerned about the potential extension, saying they did not expect the decision to affect their business.

The consultation period is open from May 3, 2024, until June 5, 2024. The council’s decision regarding the draft bylaw is expected in August 2024 after all submissions have been seen.

Ben Tomsett is a Multimedia Journalist for the New Zealand Herald, based in Dunedin.

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