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Why is the world's 29th richest person funding a campaign by Irish sex workers?

Billionaire investor and activist George Soros is backing the Sex Workers Alliance Ireland.

GEORGE SOROS, THE billionaire investor and a major backer of liberal causes around the world, is supporting a campaign by lobby group Sex Workers Alliance Ireland against planned new sex laws.

Social Impact Investment Forum Source: PA WIRE

The group – spearheaded by Kate McGrew, the US-born sex worker who gained fame as part of RTÉ documentary series Connected – is campaigning against measures contained in the government’s planned new legislation, which will criminalise those who pay for sex.

The Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Bill 2015, which was published in September, is supported by a range of civil society groups, including the likes of the Immigrant Council of Ireland and Ruhama.

Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald says the new laws, which mirror the approach to prostitution taken in Northern Ireland “have seen a reduction in demand and notably, over time, an increase in support for similar laws”.

The SWAI, which held a vigil outside the gates of the Dáil last week, argues that the change in legislation will expose women involved in prostitution to increased threats of violence and make interaction with gardaí and other authorities less likely.

kate Kate McGrew of the Sex Workers Alliance Ireland outside Leinster House last week.

Who is George Soros? 

Soros survived the Nazi occupation of his native Hungary and later worked as a railway porter in London, before rising to become the world’s richest hedge fund manager.

Listed by Forbes as the 29th richest person in the world, the investor began funding liberal campaigns in the US in the 1990s. These included campaigns on issues like immigration reform and drug legalisation. He spent an estimated $80 million on the cannabis legalisation effort over a 20 year period.

The businessman’s campaigning activities aren’t limited to the US, however. Last month he called on the EU to accept at least a million refugees each year and to cover the cost of healthcare and education for each person accepted for at least two years.

A spokesperson for the Soros-chaired Open Society Foundations confirmed to TheJournal.ie that it began supporting the Sex Workers Alliance Ireland in “advocacy and organisational development” earlier this year.

As Ireland considers new sex work laws, we are committed to elevating the perspectives of those most directly affected – sex workers themselves.

Clinton Global Initiative Soros speaks alongside Bill Clinton and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi in September. Source: Associated Press

Open Society has long supported organisations elsewhere that are governed by sex workers, like the International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe and the Sex Workers’ Rights Advocacy Network, the group’s statement added.

Making either the purchase or sale of sexual services a crime puts sex workers at risk by driving their work underground. Criminalisation pushes sex workers away from health and social services, and makes it harder to negotiate with or screen clients, insist on condom use, and implement other safety strategies.

“Decriminalisation can allow sex workers to be protected by labour laws and to organise for improved working conditions, to better access health services and insist on condom use, and to collaborate with police and other officials.”

The statement concluded:

A recent study published in the Lancet found decriminalisation to be the single most effective way to reduce new HIV infections among female sex workers over the next decade.

Kate McGrew, speaking to this website, said the SWAI was contacted by the Soros-chaired foundation after the Irish group published a paper titled ‘Realising Sex Workers Rights’ in February. A staff member at Open Society told them funding might be available under a programme it was running.

It was something they “took very seriously,” she said, and the funds were now being used for “all kinds of things” – including an office in Dublin. The campaign group has also hired a number of paid staff to work at its city centre base, which it shares with another organisation.

tj Source: TheJournal.ie

As they campaigned against the sex law changes, the group has been preoccupied with “fire-fighting” in recent months, McGrew said.

Going forward, they hope to expand their activities, conducting more “peer outreach”.

“Amplifying the voices of sex workers across the spectrum,” will be the SWAI’s next priority, McGrew said, noting that this could start with something as simple as getting people together for a “sex worker breakfast”.

It’s great just to have this space now. This can be very isolating work, so it’s important these voices are heard.

The Immigrant Council of Ireland, which has been one of the groups leading the campaign in favour of the law change, insists the criminalisation of those who pay for sex will “wreck the business model for pimps, traffickers and thugs”.

Prostitution south of the border increased in the wake of the introduction of similar laws in the North, the NGO claimed at the start of the year, saying it underscored the need for swift legislative change here.

Read: New laws criminalising people who pay for sex passed the first hurdle

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