‘Humiliated’: Gay male sex worker wins legal battle

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A gay sex worker and sex workers’ rights advocate has won a discrimination case against two Australian financial services providers – helping to protect others in the industry from falling victim to “debanking”.

“Debanking” occurs when a bank or financial institution no longer offers services such as accounts, loans or payment processing to a person or company due to their professional activities.

Matthew Roberts from Victoria had been using a portable EFTPOS device to process payments for his customers for years without any problems until his access was suddenly cut off in 2022.

“I was with Mint Payment Services and used my EFTPOS device for sex work for several years without any problems,” he said.

However, when Mint Payments changed its partner company from Bendigo Bank to First Data Merchant Solutions Australia between 2021 and 2022, this meant that Mr Roberts had to submit a new application to use the services.

When he tried to register for the EFTPOS device again, he said he was subjected to accusations and discrimination.

“I was asked what I did for a living, there was complete silence and then the phone hung up,” he said.

“Sex workers across the country face a dilemma. They can lie and be treated fairly, or tell the truth and almost certainly face discrimination.”

“I decided to tell the truth and the discrimination came thick and fast. I was physically shaking. I felt humiliated and disrespected.”

However, Mr Roberts said this was not made “clear” to him until he pursued the matter further and wrote a letter to the managing director of Mint Payments informing him that he was “prohibited” from using their services.

“I asked for confirmation of the reason for my suspension and received it in writing,” he said.

The letter, which he received in June 2022, stated: “Due to the contractual terms of our current buyers, we are unable to provide you with our service.”

Following these letters, which formed the basis of his action, Maurice Blackburn brought an action on behalf of Mr Roberts against Mint Payments and its acquirer, First Data Merchant Solutions Australia.

“Now that sex work has been decriminalised, financial service providers must take sex work seriously.

“When you fill out a business application form you have to be honest. There is no reason why sex workers in Victoria have to lie as sex work is decriminalised and legal,” he said.

In Victoria, it is unlawful to discriminate against someone on the basis of their profession, trade or employment.

The Victorian state parliament passed laws decriminalising sex work in 2022.

NSW and Queensland are also among the states in Australia that have decriminalized sex work.

However, according to data from the advocacy group Scarlett Alliance, different regulations still apply in many states across the country.

In some states, sex workers receive little or no protection from discrimination, and in others, sex work is still illegal.

Matthew himself does not blame the person he spoke to on the phone, but says it is a larger, systemic problem within the “culture of these companies.”

“It was a young, new employee. I cannot comment on his views, but he was an employee of Mint Payments and behaved as he thought his employee would expect him to,” he said.

“One wonders what the company’s policy was.

“Are you aware of any anti-discrimination laws? How do you train your employees?”

After his experience with the financial services provider, Mr Roberts said the anger he felt was the fuel that continued to “motivate” him to take legal action and “fight for justice” in court for years.

“The settlement was not about money. I never asked for money and never received any from any of the defendants,” he said.

Instead, he said the case was about forcing “cultural and political change” in the financial services industry, not about a payout.

In late 2023, Mr. Roberts agreed to settle his discrimination claim on the condition that the two companies do not restrict the services offered to individuals because they legally engage in sex work and that they consider on their merits all requests for services from individuals who legally engage in sex work.

Both companies also agreed to train their employees on any anti-discrimination laws.

“This case is significant because it reminds all businesses that they must be aware of their legal obligations under all anti-discrimination laws, train their staff and treat sex workers fairly.”

The sex worker rights advocate said he hoped the outcome of his case would mark “the beginning of a cultural shift in this country” regarding the way sex workers and financial discrimination in general are viewed.

“The debanking procedures are shrouded in secrecy and there is no fair process. In most cases, you are not given a reason when someone debanks their bank account,” he said.

Mr Roberts said half of his clients wanted to pay by credit card. And if financial institutions banned sex workers from paying by card, the consequences would be “quite serious” because if a person had to keep large amounts of cash at home, it would become a security risk.

“Some sex businesses have actually had to close due to the debanking measures, and it is also a question of safety,” he said.

“I’m in the industry because I love what I do and that will never change,” Mr Roberts said.

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