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Australia's Mining Boom Creates Demand For Sex Workers

Supporters of the Scarlet Alliance Australian Sex Workers Association demand better legal protections at a rally outside the New South Wales Parliament in September. (AFP/Getty Images)

It's 9 p.m. on a Wednesday, and the night shift has started work at Langtrees, a popular brothel in the Western Australia city of Perth.

Like other women at Langtrees, "Ruby," 25, uses a working name out of concern for her safety. Ruby is from Spain, and tonight she expects to earn at least $1,500.

"I work in many countries — in Europe, in Dubai, I work in Brazil," Ruby says.

But she says Australia is the best place she's worked. The sex industry here is mostly legal, and it has boomed alongside the thriving mining industry. Sex workers from around the world have flocked to Western Australia, drawn to the big money earned by thousands of miners.

Miners Flush With Cash

Perth is the gateway to the resource-rich state of Western Australia, or WA. Sex workers can earn $200,000 a year here — even more than the miners.

"It has been the best three, four years of trade. I've been here for, in WA, for 30 years, and it is booming," says Mary-Anne Kenworthy, the madam of Langtrees.

Langtrees charges clients a basic rate of $400 an hour, split evenly between the sex worker and the house. Kenworthy says she has women coming to work here from Cuba, Scotland, Brazil, even Canada and the U.S. That's because the clients are spending more than ever.

"Across the board, all clientele would spend 100 percent more than they used to spend, so we get a lot of four-, six-, 10-hour bookings," Kenworthy says.

Most of the clients are younger men who live in the city but fly out to remote mining sites for shifts lasting several weeks. It's a grueling schedule, and it can make starting a relationship difficult. "Leila," 23, from New Zealand says that's what brings the men to Langtrees.

"Most of them just want to have a good time. This is the place to come for a girl that's ready to have a good time too," she says.

Rethinking The Laws

Prostitution is legal throughout Australia, although the rules vary from state to state. A bill before the Parliament of Western Australia proposes making it more difficult for sex workers to operate.

"This is not a job that any woman would select for their daughter," says Janet Woollard, an independent member of the legislature who has been pushing the bill.

Woollard would like to make all brothels in WA illegal.

"Prostitution is very much exploitation of vulnerable young girls and young women," Woollard says.

However, residents have not shown a strong interest in scaling back the sex industry, says Courtney Trenwith, a reporter with the news website WA Today.

"It was more of a government initiative than there necessarily being a huge outcry about it in the first place. And, in fact, the government is even struggling to get it through Parliament with the support of its own party, let alone the opposition," Trenwith says.

Critics of the bill say attempts to criminalize the sex industry will simply make it less safe.

"If they did get this law up, 50 percent of the industry would be forced underground," says Kenworthy, the madam.

She says authorities haven't been able to stamp out prostitution anywhere in the world, and they wouldn't succeed in doing so in Western Australia either.

The legislation is stalled in Parliament for now, but could be revived after state elections this year.

Meanwhile, back at Langtrees, it's now 11 p.m. and the brothel is getting busier. For now, at least, businesses is booming.

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Transcript

JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

In Australia, a mineral mining boom is spawning another boom: the sex industry. Thousands of miners earning boom time pay has attracted prostitutes from around the world to Western Australia. Prostitution is legal there, but as reporter Sana Qadar reports from Sydney, the rise has led to calls for a change in the law.

SANA QADAR, BYLINE: It's 9 o'clock on a Wednesday evening, and the night shift has started work at Langtrees, a popular brothel in the city of Perth. Twenty-five-year-old Ruby, like other women at Langtrees, uses a working name out of concern for her safety. Ruby is from Spain, and tonight, she expects to earn at least $1,500.

RUBY: I work in many countries: in Europe, in Dubai. I work in Brazil. But I tell you, now that is the best.

QADAR: Australia is the best?

RUBY: And Europe is so bad.

QADAR: Perth is the gateway to the resource-rich state of Western Australia or WA. Sex workers can earn an average of $200,000 a year here - that's more than most miners.

MARY-ANNE KENWORTHY: It has been the best three, four years of trade. I've been here for, in WA, for 30 years, and it is booming.

QADAR: Mary-Anne Kenworthy is the madam of Langtrees, which charges clients a basic rate of $400 an hour, split evenly between the sex worker and the house. Kenworthy says she has women coming to work here from Cuba, Scotland, Brazil, even Canada and the U.S. That's because the clients are spending more than ever.

KENWORTHY: Across the board, all clientele would spend, you know, 100 percent more than they used to spend, so we get a lot of four-, five-, six-, 10-hour bookings.

QADAR: Most of the clients are younger men who live in the city but fly out to remote mining sites for shifts lasting several weeks. It's a grueling schedule, and it can make starting a relationship difficult. Twenty-three-year-old Leila from New Zealand says that's what brings them to Langtrees.

LEILA: Kind of most of them just want to have a good time. And this is the place to come for a girl that's ready to have a good time too.

QADAR: Prostitution is legal throughout Australia, although the details vary from state to state. But a bill before the Western Australian parliament this year proposed making it harder for sex workers to operate.

JANET WOOLLARD: This is not a job that any woman would select for their daughter.

QADAR: Independent member of Parliament Janet Woollard wants the bill to go even further and make all brothels in the state illegal.

WOOLLARD: Prostitution is very much exploitation of vulnerable young girls and young women.

QADAR: Many people in Western Australia know about the sex industry here, but they don't seem very concerned about stopping it, says Courtney Trenwith, a reporter with the news website WA Today.

COURTNEY TRENWITH: It was more of a government initiative than there necessarily being a huge outcry about it in the first place. And, in fact, the government is even struggling to get it through Parliament with the support of its own party, let alone the opposition.

QADAR: Critics of the bill say attempts to criminalize the sex industry will simply make it less safe. Here's brothel owner Mary-Anne Kenworthy again.

KENWORTHY: If they did get this law up, 50 percent of the industry would be forced underground.

QADAR: Kenworthy says authorities haven't been able to stamp out prostitution anywhere in the world, and they wouldn't succeed in doing so in Western Australia either. The legislation is stalled in Parliament for now but could be revived after state elections next year, although the sex industry is lobbying hard against it. Meanwhile, back at Langtrees, it's now 11 p.m. and the brothel is getting busier.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: How are you?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Good. How are you?

QADAR: For now, at least, business is booming. For NPR News, I'm Sana Qadar. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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