Rome's workers of the night fail to unite as the chains of their trade bind tighter

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The Independent Online
ON 1 MAY Italy's piazze still throng with red-flag-waving union supporters. The only red to be seen in one of this year's less traditional workers' day events, however, was the slinky number being worn by Vladimir Luxuria as he welcomed call girls and rent boys to their own rally at a disco in the Rome suburbs.

"They're workers like any others," said Vladimir. "But they have none of the guarantees other workers have. They have no pensions, no sick pay. They have no organisation to look after their interests. And given the conditions they work in, they really need it."

There are an estimated 3,000 prostitutes on Rome's streets, almost 80 per cent of whom come from non-EU countries. But this is just the tip of an iceberg. Research by Florence University shows that Italy is home to 25,000 foreign prostitutes, and the European Commission believes that in the Union as a whole some 500,000 women are plying their trade. Many have entered illegally through Cyprus, then Italy, where they are introduced - often by brute force - to their new profession before being sent on to their final destinations around the continent. They are predominantly from eastern Europe, and from Albania in particular. But Nigeria, Ghana and Cameroon are also well represented.

In a growing number of cases, girls and young women allow themselves to be lured from home by boyfriends or family acquaintances who promise waitressing work, then turn nasty as soon as the border is safely crossed. Their documents are destroyed and their earnings confiscated by their "protectors". "They're pawns in the hands of organised crime," said Vladimir, a high-profile figure in the Mario Mieli gay centre which puts revenue from prostitution at 300bn lire (over pounds 100m) for Albanian outfits alone. "And more and more of them are under age. They are the ones that really need help."

They are also the ones that were nowhere to be seen as the lavoratori del sesso (sex workers) disco got under way. In fact, there were very few sex workers there at all to demand their rights. "They'll be here, I'm sure, " he promised, pointing out a masseuse who had agreed to provide her services for the evening.

As an Italian, this masseuse is now part of a dwindling minority in the sex business. "But the Italians are the real professionals, the ones who go into the trade with their eyes wide open," said Vladimir. They are also the ones with a far higher incidence of HIV than the 10 per cent average in the trade. But that makes clients no more wary, finds a report from the Mario Mieli centre and the health ministry.

On the streets of Rome, 87 per cent of female prostitutes are asked for unprotected sex, a figure which rises to 100 per cent for male and transvestite prostitutes. And though most of the 1,200 prostitutes polled said they refused steadfastly, the rising number of abortions suggests that they may not be telling the whole truth.

As the disco filled up with dancers clearly not involved in the sex industry, Vladimir admitted the event was unlikely to have much effect on the working conditions of Italy's prostitutes. "It's a social event really. We want to bring the sex trade out into the open. As long as the hypocrisy lasts, workers can't get a fair deal.."