This text was initially published in CUTE magazine #4. Translation by Paolo Lapointe-Miriello, original text by Amélie Poirier and Mathilde Laforge.

The campaign for paid internships and the recognition of studies as work is part of a broader framework of feminist struggles against unpaid labour and for the recognition of reproductive work [2]. This approach necessarily leads to building solidarity across the struggles of other women workers who organize and mobilize in response to their exploitation. For if students struggle from their primary place of activity, schools, they are far from limiting themselves to this space.

In fact, reflecting in terms of reproductive labour establishes links with the different forms that this work can take on a daily basis, or throughout a lifetime. Understanding these links becomes all the more urgent in the current context of the reconfiguration of the role of the State and the international division of labour [3]. While reproductive labour can hardly be mechanized or relocated, it is necessary to question who performs this work, under what conditions, and for whose benefit. Historically assigned to women, it is still largely women who carry out this work, in precarious conditions for some, without pay for others, and with little recognition overall. Sex workers and women migrant workers, often excluded from feminist and labour struggles, are major players in the struggle for the recognition of reproductive labour. Moreover, their analyses help establish a continuum of the exploitation of women, whether they are mothers, workers or interns.

Bodies, sexuality and work

In the wake of the Wages for Housework campaign in the 1970s, sex workers promoted sex work as a component of domestic work performed by married women. They show that although some women are paid for this work, the majority of them do it without pay as part of  a relationship of economic and social dependency, thus breaking the separation between two stereotypical and presumably opposed figures, those of the housewife and the prostitute. They therefore uncover the fact that sexuality with men is not natural, nor always free, desired or loving. It is rather a part of the labour that the patriarchal system extorts from women by subjecting them to a dependent relationship to men, which ultimately allows them to derive as much free labour as the capitalist system can profit from.

Sex workers also share injunctions to gender performativity with jobs related to service and care. Indeed, the know-how and social skills of sex workers are not exclusive to them. They are required, implicitly or explicitly, in all kinds of jobs. Between waitressing, modeling, beneficiary care and sex work, for example, there is only a small degree of difference in the requirements to please, to provide care, to listen and to use one's body as a working tool.

Thus, that sex work is not recognized as work, which leads to the criminalization and stigmatization of the people who accomplish it, reveals genuine hypocrisy and a serious threat to all women: the reproductive labour to which they have been historically assigned must be done for free and in silence. Or rather, they must exercise these perpetually naturalized skills in their jobs, which are consequently precarious and low-paid. It is therefore a real paradox for us to oppose the recognition of sex work by advocating the reintegration of women workers into the legal economy since it means, for the majority of these women, introducing themselves into areas of reproductive labour where the exploitation of their work and their body continues, but in an "acceptable " way.

Shame me

Don’t go and shame me,
because of the sex work I do.
The sugar girls and the escorts are everywhere in your school.
We just don’t say it out loud,
because y’know, being a whore isn’t too glamorous these days.
You make me work 800 hours without pay,
and you tell me that drinking champagne for 200$ an hour is exploitation.
Lemme explain alienation to you.
It’s telling me to be an intern without going crazy.
It’s telling me to perform without alcohol.
You say you wanna help me?
It ain’t complicated, pay me when I work my internship,
unless you want a blowjob,
fucking hypocrit.

Anonymous author

A reserve army for reproductive labour

At a time when anti-prostitution policies are largely justified by the fight against sex trafficking, where migrant women and sex workers (immigrant or not) are routinely portrayed as victims, this posture with respect to the reintegration of sex workers is particularly pernicious.  It fully integrates into “femonationalism” [4]. It is marked by distinctly racist and sexist discourse about migrant women and men; paternalistic towards the former, and hostile towards the latter [5]. This phenomenon is partly explained by the particular economic role attributed to migrant women in the current context of the aging population in the North, cuts in public services and the persistence of the sexist and racist division of labour. This role consists in accomplishing, at a lower cost, the reproductive labour which the economies of the North rely on, and for which demand is increasing [6]. The large number of racialized women and migrant women in the curricula associated with the care sector - all of which include unpaid internships -, especially in CEGEP vocational training, testifies to the integral place they occupy in the spheres of well-being, education and care.

Thus, repressive policies aimed towards women workers and policies that encourage the migration of women to perform reproductive labour are in fact complementary and "it is even possible to analyze the continued precarization of sex workers in their institutionalized constitution, as a reserve army of domestic workers" [7]. In other words, the threat of deportation for migrant sex workers reinforces their assignment to reproductive labour, but only where they are needed, i.e. in private homes, daycares, hospitals, which contributes to maintaining lower pay in these fields. In addition, since migrant women find themselves in greater numbers within training courses with unpaid internships, they may, like many other women students [8], turn to sex work to cover their daily expenses.

The conditions of unrecognized labour

The denial of reproductive labour as work, which is accompanied by precarious conditions, a devaluation and invisibilisation of work and a predisposition to psychological and sexual violence, are the common denominators of work done by women, interns, sex workers and migrant workers. In response to the violence and the extortion of their labour, thousands of women are organizing to demand recognition, pay and conditions worthy of their work.

Sex workers have been fighting for decades against the criminalization of their work. They say that it is not the work itself that is problematic - thus refusing the status of victim that is attached to them - but the conditions under which it is performed. These conditions are attributable to prohibitionist policies since they push women workers underground and increase their vulnerability. Criminalization of clients, for example, forces sex workers to move to less secure locations, negotiate lower fees, and accept unsafe practices to avoid detection by police. Unsurprisingly, with the weakening of sex workers' power relationships with clients, they are more stigmatized, abused and killed in the practice of their work [9]. The recent adoption of the FOSTA-SESTA law in the United States, which prohibits web-based spaces used for the sex trade, is another direct attack denounced by sex workers [10] since it deprives them of tools that allow them to work off the street, making it easier for them to find customers and helping to protect themselves from potential bad clients.

The struggle of migrant domestic workers in Canada is similar to that of sex workers: that we should recognize their work in order for them to enjoy the same rights and protections as other workers. While the employer's residency requirement has been removed from the Live-in Caregiver Program, their status as temporary workers, with a work permit restricted to one employer, keeps them in a particularly vulnerable situation. In Quebec, in theory, the Act respecting labour standards guarantees them certain rights. In practice, however, this law is not only difficult to enforce considering their workplace, the private residence of their employer, but mainly because their precarious status reduces their ability to negotiate. Against the abuses that this entails, migrant domestic workers require permanent residence upon arrival, as do those who migrate through the Skilled Worker Program, since they also perform skilled and essential work [11].

A common struggle for the recognition of reproductive work

Demanding the recognition of reproductive labour not only aims to improve the immediate material conditions of women workers, but it also opens the possibility of organizing against the exploitation of this work, against the control of working women's bodies, sexuality and displacement.

This perspective makes it possible to put an end to the divisions and hierarchies between the struggles of women and workers, instead providing powerful leverage to them, acting in solidarity, in the struggle for the recognition of their work, whether they are housewives with or without pay, migrant workers, sex workers or interns.

For more information...

On the International Division of Labor: Silvia Federici, 1999, Reproduction and Feminist Struggle in the New International Division of Labor, available online.

On the struggles of sex workers: Maria Nengeh Mensah, Claire Thiboutot and Louise Toupin, 2011, Luttes XXX. Inspirations du mouvement des travailleuses du sexe, Les éditions du remue-ménage.

Morgane Merteuil, 2014, Le travail du sexe contre le travail, available online.

On Femonationalism: Sara Farris, 2017, In the Name of Women's Rights: The Rise of Femonationalism, Duke University Press.


[1] From the manifesto "Money for Prostitutes is Money for Black Women", published in 1977 by Wages for Housework activists in Brooklyn:

[2] Reproductive labour consists of all the work necessary for the maintenance and renewal of the workforce: domestic chores, care for children and seniors, and the emotional, physical and sexual needs of the salaried worker.

[3] The conventional definition of the international division of labour refers to the displacement of industrial production from the global North to the global South, where wages and protections for workers are lower. Several feminists, however, have shown the importance of the workforce exported from the South to the North, especially the reproductive labour of women.

[4] Concept defined by Sara Farris as "the contemporary mobilization of feminist ideas by nationalist parties and neoliberal governments under the banner of the war against the supposed patriarchy of Islam in particular, and Third World migrants in general".

[5] Non-Western women are perceived as passive victims who must be "saved" from the yoke of their male counterparts, who in turn are perceived as dangerous and vectors of misogynistic cultural and religious practices. See Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak's pioneering writings: Can the Subaltern Speak? and Chandra Talpade Mohanty: Under Western Eyes.

[6] In Quebec, for example, it was recently learned that between 2006 and 2017, it is in the areas of care and social assistance that the largest increase in employment - 50,100 new jobs - was recorded among migrant people:
These jobs exclude temporary workers and, of course, those whose immigration status is not recognized.

[7] Morgane Merteuil, The work of sex against work, (French resource)

[8] According to Stella, a Montreal-based organization by and for sex workers, women students account for 30% of the 6,000 women attending the organization: (French resource)

[9] In 2017, the STRASS (Syndicat du travail sexuel, or Sex Work Union) found about twice as many reports of violence as in 2016, when France adopted an anti-prostitution law, introducing the criminalization of customers. A similar law was passed in Canada in 2014. (French resource)

[10] "On International Whores' Day, Artists and Sex Workers Rally Against FOSTA-SESTA, Saying Sex Trafficking Law Endangers Lives, Censors Art", June 2, 2018:, endangers-lives-censors-art/

[11] "Migrant Caregivers Make Mother's Day for Permanent Residency", May 13, 2018: