Labor of Love: Using International Labor Law to Achieve Human Rights for Women Sex Workers in the Dominican Republic

Article excerpt


The weak Dominican economy combined with the culture that heavily favors men and allows for their sexual promiscuity, creates an atmosphere where sex work is one of the few job options for poor women, and needs to be respected as work. (1)

Sex work is a profession that incites some of the most extreme and passionate debates, and yet despite the proliferation of attention, violations of sex workers' human rights persist virtually unabated. Women sex workers in the Dominican Republic often face harsh treatment from clients, brothel owners, law enforcement, and the surrounding community, fueled by cultural norms of sex, gender power struggles, racial conflicts, and economics. However, these women are uniting and working to change their circumstances and in the process are disrupting many of the cultural norms that have kept the status quo in place. They are demanding to be treated with the same rights and privileges as any other workers, including rights to social security, rights to unionize, and rights to bargain collectively. This Note argues that legalizing sex work in the Dominican Republic and regulating the sex industry under the Labor Code and the International Labor Organization will help the Dominican Republic achieve the human rights ideals of the United Nations.

Part I will describe the roles of gender, race, and economics in sex work and how these factors often lead the most vulnerable in Dominican society to work in the sex industry. The section will then elaborate on how gender and race fit into the dynamics of the Dominican sex industry and address the main human rights abuses occurring within this context: discrimination, violation of the right of personal security, and violation of the right to mental health. Part II will develop the three main theoretical and legal approaches to sex work--prohibition, decriminalization, and legalization--concluding that legalization is the best solution. Expanding on this, Part III discusses how the principles of the International Labor Organization would apply to improve the human rights of sex workers in regards to discrimination, violation of the right to personal security, and violation of the right to mental health. Recommendations to the Dominican Republic on how to achieve these goals are laid out in Part IV, including legal recommendations, enforcement recommendations, and non-legal approaches.


The dynamics of the sex industry in the Dominican Republic are unique. Part A will describe the historical and cultural factors that have led to the distinct racial and gender divisions within Dominican society. Building on this, Part B will explain the operation of the Dominican sex industry in this context, and Part C will delineate the most frequent human rights abuses that occur in the Dominican sex industry as a result.

A. Gender, Race, and Economics: Getting to Sex Work

Gender, race, and economics are all factors in leading women to sex work and increase the risk of human rights abuses in that occupation. Gender and race in particular have traditionally played a large role in stratification and discrimination within Dominican culture. Economics has also played a significant part in the sex industry in the Dominican Republic.

1. Gender & Race

Gender bias is an inherent part of Dominican culture. (2) It reduces the spectrum of economic possibilities available to Dominican women, pushing them towards sex work. The diminished status of women also exacerbates the degree of human rights violations sex workers face. Rafael Trujillo, the Dominican dictator of the 1960s, often publicly concretized, and thereby, legitimated the gender divide in displays by the state. (3) In the present day, the Dominican government has not implemented any successful programs to counteract discrimination, (4) leaving women especially vulnerable to economic problems. …


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