August 05, 2001 04:30pm
Dutch Prostitutes Mean Business
by: Melanie Cheary
(AMSTERDAM) -- Nowhere is the world's oldest profession more legal than in the Netherlands where the booming sex industry pays tax, but prostitutes say they still struggle to gain the financial acceptance they need from Dutch banks.
Amsterdam's Ladies of the Night consider themselves small business entrepreneurs -- providing a service in a sector where demand far exceeds supply.
They want bank accounts which show their income is not personal so that expenses -- like condoms and sex toys -- can be tax-free and tax-deductible.
Dutch banks say prostitution is too risky a business, too associated with crime and too likely to offend other clients.
But the representative body for the around 20,000 prostitutes in The Netherlands says banks are sexist, judgmental, worried what people might think and missing out on a good opportunity in an industry estimated to earn almost $1 billion annually.
SEXIST OR SHY
The Rode Draad (Red Thread), which acts and speaks on behalf of prostitutes, has filed a complaint against the Dutch bank ING Groep with the Office of Fair Treatment, a forum for voicing complaints about inequality.
The case, which had its first hearing last week, alleges discrimination against women because ING won't allow prostitutes to open the kind of commercial bank accounts to which, they say, as legitimate workers in a legal industry, they are entitled.
ING, the country's biggest financial group by market capitalisation, says it does not want its name tied in any way to sex and that this might offend other clients in the 65 countries it operates, which might not be as liberal as the Dutch.
``We're not discriminating against women. Our policy for years has been that we don't want to do business with persons from the sex industry, the entire sex industry. Not only prostitutes but also makers of porn videos and other articles,'' says ING spokesman Peter Jong.
``We don't have a moral judgment on this. Our decision is purely business. There is too big a risk. The sex industry is not very stable, not very transparent and so it is difficult to calculate the risks,'' he added, raising the point that the large amount of cash changing hands could facilitate money laundering.
Prostitution was banned in the Netherlands in the 17th century but legalised by then-ruler the French emperor Napoleon in 1815.
Since 1988 it has been officially defined as a legal profession and prostitutes joined the service sector union. They have been required to pay income tax since 1996.
``We're talking about a legal branch of the sex industry here. It's been legal since Napoleon. They've had a few hundred years to research the risk,'' says Rode Draad spokeswoman Christy ten Broeke from the organisation's headquarters near Amsterdam's thriving red light district.
``Sex is a major industry and booming. If a bank is clever and wants to make money they should take our business,'' she added, making a passing reference to the global economic downturn and the pressure this has put on banks' bottom lines.
As private clients, who don't need to disclose their occupation, prostitutes in The Netherlands can open current and savings accounts like other people with money.
But sex workers say they face a cold shoulder when trying to open commercial accounts that will allow their revenues to be treated commercially by tax authorities and open up small business credit facilities needed to rent and decorate premises from which they conduct their trade.
``They want to be taxed as a business and not as a private individual. This will entitle them to some tax deductible items, like condoms and other materials,'' Ten Broeke says.
``It would also make it easier for clients. Some clients pay by credit card or cheque and it would allow them some privacy if a neutral business name was shown on accounts or receipts rather than the woman's name,'' she adds.
ATTACK AND DEFENCE
A decision on last week's hearing is expected from the Office of Fair Treatment in a few weeks. The decision is non-binding but could guide banks' policy.
While ING is the target of the prostitutes' complaint, other banks have also presented problems, forcing some sex workers to open business bank accounts under false company names.
Another large Dutch bank, ABN AMRO initially rejected an application for a commercial account made by Ten Broeke when she said she was from the Rode Draad.
But shortly afterwards she received a letter saying that a mistake had been made and if she could produce a registration number from the country's commerce authorities, such an account could be opened.
``In general we say every businessman and woman is welcome and, if we see good business prospects, we see no reason to say no even if it is a prostitute,'' ABN AMRO spokesman Jochem van de Laarschot told Reuters.
``There is no such thing as a policy that we say ''no`` to anyone in this sector. But of course we don't say ''yes`` to everyone either. I do believe our records show that prostitutes have commercial accounts with us,'' he added.
But Van de Laarschot emphasises that the geographical location from which a prostitute requests a business account has to be considered.
``If it is Amsterdam, sure, but if it's Veluwe, the Dutch Bible Belt, then this could offend some of our other clients.''
($1 equals 2.508 Guilders)