The streetwalkers of Whitechapel have been badly let down

More than a hundred years after Jack the Ripper, we're still fighting the same battles on prostitution.

Earlier this year the East London-based charity Toynbee Hall made an uncharacteristic approach to the media. It felt moved to tell newspapers that it had witnessed an increase in the number of arrests and new bail conditions imposed on women arrested for street prostitution. 

It’s hardly a charity that sticks its head above the parapet at the best of times, but then this wasn’t a slight rise - arrests in the first two and a half months (48) exceeded arrest levels for the whole of 2011 (44).

It suggested a whole new strategy in terms of policing the problem. The unspoken assumption – one the media deduced – was that this was a bid to get the streetwalkers out of the Olympic boroughs in time for July. One feels they might not quite square with Danny Boyle’s vision of England, Green and Pleasant LandTM.

The charity could monitor the number of arrests because of the referrals it received to its Safe Exit programme. Laura is one of the women who has been sent to it. Her full story is told in this video:

At a young age, Laura was encouraged to take drugs by a crack addict. She helped him scam other men, offering sex, taking the money and running away, with him stepping in to ward them off. But after a while he stopped showing up. He spent all the money on drugs, which they’d share, and he began to beat her up. She remembers standing outside King’s Cross station with a black eye, and a policeman looking at her. She wished he’d do anything – even arrest her – just to get her away from her pimp. He walked away.

The punters approached her in their cars, some of them playing with themselves. They were often, in her words, “Fat, and smelly and gross”. Some were simply lonely and wanted to talk; others were crazy – one man kept her in his flat and threatened her with a knife. Aged 19, she ended up in prison. Once she was out she slipped into the same routine. By this time she was taking heroin (she feels that 99% of girls who walk the streets are doing it to feed their drug habits).

She served another year in prison, and knew her life was going down the pan. The police offered her a choice between court and Toynbee Hall’s Safe Exit programme. She was given a flat and began to feel better about herself. She’s taking Methadone, and has a doctor nearby who supports her. Things have improved in the last five years. She still falls back on the drugs from time to time, and to fund it she goes back into prostitution. Her son doesn’t know about all this – she tells him and her mother she’s got a bar job. If she could have anything it would simply be a quiet life.

The question of how to deal with a case like this is complex: if you have an opinion, it’s not likely to be supported by statistical data, because useful studies are thin on the ground. But one thing that most people in the know are unanimous about is the fact that you can’t police this problem away, and if you want to help women like Laura it’s unlikely to happen when they’re in the criminal justice system.

Back in the New Labour glory years, much of the chat was in support of punitive measures and the likes of Denis MacShane and various radical feminists regularly bellyached about trafficking without a shred of decent empirical data. It was all a bit shouty and down with this sort of thing. Let’s arrest the prostitutes! No, let’s arrest the johns! No, let’s shut down the brothels! No, let’s put them all on compulsory drugs treatment programmes! No, let’s send Brooke Magnanti a turd in the post!

But even back then, the Poppy Project (one of the noisiest collectives) spoke out against the use of ASBOs on streetwalkers, on the grounds that the last thing you want these women doing is disappearing even further under the radar. Laura’s point about drugs is germane – most of the women who walk the streets are there because brothels and massage parlours refuse to take them.

But this doesn’t mean the police don’t have a role to play. Street prostitution doesn’t just impact on the women involved in the trade. Near Toynbee Hall is the Flower and Dean estate: a small, red brick maze of dark alleys and cul-de-sacs. The main road nearby, Commercial Street, is a busy thoroughfare that runs between the City of London and pubs and clubs of Brick Lane: it’s an informal red light district for streetwalkers.

The residents of Flower and Dean, many of them devout Muslims, have suffered a significant impact on their quality of life due to prostitutes using it as a location to have sex with their clients. It’s not nice to have your kids playing around used condoms and needles, and there’s been threatening behaviour from the sex workers towards female residents.

There’s a horrific irony to the fact that desperate women are plying the most dangerous of trades here. In 1888, two streetwalkers who lived on the road from which the estate takes its name were murdered. Their killer was never caught, but his name – Jack the Ripper – was never forgotten.

The charity has helped a group of mothers on the estate take charge of the situation. It put on workshops which taught them about the wider social issues that cause the problem, and how they could deal with it. Marcus Duran, the programme coordinator, says: “The women were in the dark about the law, and about what the police could do to help, despite the fact that believe it or not, the local station backs onto the estate. We helped them work with the police, lobbying for bail restrictions that would stop the estate being used, and demanding different patrols – it shocked me to discover the activity often started around 9pm.”

All of this made the lives of those on the estate better, but at the same time there was an acceptance that this simply shifted the problem on. And so alongside the Safe Exit programme, the women have pledged to involve themselves in a long-term, cross borough strategy, offering their expertise based on dealing with the problem on their doorstep.

There were plenty of well-meaning initiatives around the area in the Ripper’s time. It’s hard to believe many of the same battles are being fought over 100 years later.

 

A teenage prostitute waits for customers. Photograph: Getty Images

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National and the TLS. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture.

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There's nothing Luddite about banning zero-hours contracts

The TUC general secretary responds to the Taylor Review. 

Unions have been criticised over the past week for our lukewarm response to the Taylor Review. According to the report’s author we were wrong to expect “quick fixes”, when “gradual change” is the order of the day. “Why aren’t you celebrating the new ‘flexibility’ the gig economy has unleashed?” others have complained.

Our response to these arguments is clear. Unions are not Luddites, and we recognise that the world of work is changing. But to understand these changes, we need to recognise that we’ve seen shifts in the balance of power in the workplace that go well beyond the replacement of a paper schedule with an app.

Years of attacks on trade unions have reduced workers’ bargaining power. This is key to understanding today’s world of work. Economic theory says that the near full employment rates should enable workers to ask for higher pay – but we’re still in the middle of the longest pay squeeze for 150 years.

And while fears of mass unemployment didn’t materialise after the economic crisis, we saw working people increasingly forced to accept jobs with less security, be it zero-hours contracts, agency work, or low-paid self-employment.

The key test for us is not whether new laws respond to new technology. It’s whether they harness it to make the world of work better, and give working people the confidence they need to negotiate better rights.

Don’t get me wrong. Matthew Taylor’s review is not without merit. We support his call for the abolishment of the Swedish Derogation – a loophole that has allowed employers to get away with paying agency workers less, even when they are doing the same job as their permanent colleagues.

Guaranteeing all workers the right to sick pay would make a real difference, as would asking employers to pay a higher rate for non-contracted hours. Payment for when shifts are cancelled at the last minute, as is now increasingly the case in the United States, was a key ask in our submission to the review.

But where the report falls short is not taking power seriously. 

The proposed new "dependent contractor status" carries real risks of downgrading people’s ability to receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Here new technology isn’t creating new risks – it’s exacerbating old ones that we have fought to eradicate.

It’s no surprise that we are nervous about the return of "piece rates" or payment for tasks completed, rather than hours worked. Our experience of these has been in sectors like contract cleaning and hotels, where they’re used to set unreasonable targets, and drive down pay. Forgive us for being sceptical about Uber’s record of following the letter of the law.

Taylor’s proposals on zero-hours contracts also miss the point. Those on zero hours contracts – working in low paid sectors like hospitality, caring, and retail - are dependent on their boss for the hours they need to pay their bills. A "right to request" guaranteed hours from an exploitative boss is no right at all for many workers. Those in insecure jobs are in constant fear of having their hours cut if they speak up at work. Will the "right to request" really change this?

Tilting the balance of power back towards workers is what the trade union movement exists for. But it’s also vital to delivering the better productivity and growth Britain so sorely needs.

There is plenty of evidence from across the UK and the wider world that workplaces with good terms and conditions, pay and worker voice are more productive. That’s why the OECD (hardly a left-wing mouth piece) has called for a new debate about how collective bargaining can deliver more equality, more inclusion and better jobs all round.

We know as a union movement that we have to up our game. And part of that thinking must include how trade unions can take advantage of new technologies to organise workers.

We are ready for this challenge. Our role isn’t to stop changes in technology. It’s to make sure technology is used to make working people’s lives better, and to make sure any gains are fairly shared.

Frances O'Grady is the General Secretary of the TUC.