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Rethinking a legal sex trade

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When it legalized prostitution two years ago, Germany sought to bring the industry under state control, providing sex workers with labor rights and greater health protection. But some Germans are now saying the law has failed to achieve its objective.

The issue came to the fore earlier this year when a 25-year-old waitress looking for work was told that she faced losing her unemployment benefits because she had turned down a job at a brothel.

The woman was desperate to work, although not in a sex establishment. But under a new welfare law aimed at easing the longtime jobless back into the workforce, women under the age of 55 who have been out of work for more than a year must accept any job offered to them - or give up unemployment benefits.

"There is now nothing in the law to stop women from being sent into the sex industry," Merchthild Garweg, a Hamburg lawyer specializing in such cases, told the German newspaper Die Tageszeitung. "The new regulations say that working in the sex industry is not immoral anymore, and so jobs cannot be turned down without a risk to benefits."

The threat, many were quick to point out, was not a real one.

"In reality in Germany, no one will be forced into prostitution," retorts Emilija Mitrovic, a Hamburg-based social scientist who studies prostitution.

Nevertheless, the case has driven the country to reexamine the difficulties connected with one of the most controversial pieces of social legislation Germany has ever dealt with.

An estimated 400,000 prostitutes work in Germany, and 1.2 million customers are said to use their services daily. Revenues are estimated at 6 billion euros every year - equivalent to those of companies like Porsche and Adidas.

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