Club owners balk at plans to regulate sex industry “We prefer closure to losing money”POSTED: 02/25/14 10:30 PM
St. Maarten / By Hilbert Haar – “If the government sticks to its plans we will close down. We prefer closure to losing money. And then we will see what will happen with criminality on the island.” That is the position of brothel owners and adult entertainment centers, says attorney Cor Merx, who represents about 75 percent of all these businesses on the island.
As Prime Minister Wescot-Williams announced last week, the Ministry of Public Health, social Affairs and Labor is working on adjustments to the work permits for so-called exotic dancers. One of these requirements would be registration at the tax inspectorate, in an attempt to collect taxes that the working girls currently are evading.
There are also other requirements on the table, like insuring the girls, who come to the island on work permits for 6 months, with SZV. The club owners have serious problems with this proposal, says Merx.
“If they are insured by SZV they will become employees. If they happen to become ill, they are here, doing nothing and the community pays for it.”
Last Friday club owners met with representatives of the Ministries of Justice and Labor to discuss the situation. That meeting did not go well, Merx said, and there is still no workable solution. “Club owners want to do this the correct way, and they are asking the government to tell them how to do this. Nobody wants to be prosecuted for human trafficking.”
In 2004, when Merx was Chief Prosecutor in St. Maarten his office together with the Lt. governor and the Chief commissioner of police agreed to condone prostitution. While prostitutes before that year fell under the insurance of BZV, from 2004 the club-owners were obliged to take out insurance for their girls. The new policy also required a work permit and a residence permit.
That system went off the rails from the get go, Merx said, because the ministries that had to handle the work permits and the residence permits did not coordinate their activities. “Girls ended up with a work permit for 6 months and a residence permit for 2 months. That caused a lot of dissatisfaction among the club owners.”
Girls from countries like the Dominican Republic and Colombia who wanted to work in St. Maarten’s houses of easy virtue needed a landing permit. “They had to take that to their embassies to show that they were going to work here as housemaids,” Merx says. “But of course they came here to work as hostesses or prostitutes. The policy was that prostitutes were allowed on the Philipsburg side of the hill, and hostesses, or dancers, on the other side.”
The paperwork the girls required for working in St. Maarten posed a practical problem. Because permits were for 6 months only, clubs had to change their girls twice a year. But the government apparatus took a long time to process the permits, especially the landing permits.
That in turn frustrated the club owners, because they had to pay $900 for each work permit. When landing permits took too long to arrive, Merx says, around 10 percent of the girls decided to go to Bonaire or to curacao where they did not need all that paperwork. The club owners were stuck for the damages, because the government did not return the money they had paid for the permit.
“We have discussed this with the government at the time and the conclusion was that these permits could be handled in one day,” says Merx. “There are twelve clubs and let’s says that they each have 30 girls. That is 360 times $900, twice per year. For that money – $54,000 – the government could easily afford to dedicate one civil servant to this task.”
In Bonaire and Curacao, prostitutes are considered independent entrepreneurs. They do not have to pay for a work permit, Merx says, though they are liable for taxes. “Whether the government collects those taxes, I do not know, but that is their problem,” Merx said.
The club owners also had a problem with the foreign labor policy that set the minimum age for foreign workers at 25 a couple of years back. “Hyacinth Richardson was the commissioner of Labor at the time,” Merx said. “We wanted to bring the minimum age for the girls down to 21, but the commissioner did not want that, because he could not square it with his church. He only relented when we threatened to start distributing flyers at his church to recruit local girls.”
Registering the girls at the tax inspectorate will have little effect, Merx foresees. “It the government goes ahead and enforces insurance under the SZV, they will be insured against the minimum wage. Then they will only pay wage tax and social premiums.”
Government and club owners have no argument about the question that the sex industry needs to be regulated. “The minister of justice wants it regulated but he does not have enough staff to do this,” Merx said. “But something needs to be done. It takes now between two and three months before a girl is allowed to come to St. Maarten. Then things happen in the illegality, but that is because the government apparatus is so slow.”