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Australia's Mining Boom Creates Demand For Sex Workers

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It's 9 p.m. on a Wednesday, and the night shift has started work at Langtrees, a popular brothel in the Western Australia city of Perth.

Like other women at Langtrees, "Ruby," 25, uses a working name out of concern for her safety. Ruby is from Spain, and tonight she expects to earn at least $1,500.

"I work in many countries — in Europe, in Dubai, I work in Brazil," Ruby says.

But she says Australia is the best place she's worked. The sex industry here is mostly legal, and it has boomed alongside the thriving mining industry. Sex workers from around the world have flocked to Western Australia, drawn to the big money earned by thousands of miners.

Miners Flush With Cash

Perth is the gateway to the resource-rich state of Western Australia, or WA. Sex workers can earn $200,000 a year here — even more than the miners.

"It has been the best three, four years of trade. I've been here for, in WA, for 30 years, and it is booming," says Mary-Anne Kenworthy, the madam of Langtrees.

Langtrees charges clients a basic rate of $400 an hour, split evenly between the sex worker and the house. Kenworthy says she has women coming to work here from Cuba, Scotland, Brazil, even Canada and the U.S. That's because the clients are spending more than ever.

"Across the board, all clientele would spend 100 percent more than they used to spend, so we get a lot of four-, six-, 10-hour bookings," Kenworthy says.

Most of the clients are younger men who live in the city but fly out to remote mining sites for shifts lasting several weeks. It's a grueling schedule, and it can make starting a relationship difficult. "Leila," 23, from New Zealand says that's what brings the men to Langtrees.

"Most of them just want to have a good time. This is the place to come for a girl that's ready to have a good time too," she says.

Rethinking The Laws

Prostitution is legal throughout Australia, although the rules vary from state to state. A bill before the Parliament of Western Australia proposes making it more difficult for sex workers to operate.

"This is not a job that any woman would select for their daughter," says Janet Woollard, an independent member of the legislature who has been pushing the bill.

Woollard would like to make all brothels in WA illegal.

"Prostitution is very much exploitation of vulnerable young girls and young women," Woollard says.

However, residents have not shown a strong interest in scaling back the sex industry, says Courtney Trenwith, a reporter with the news website WA Today.

"It was more of a government initiative than there necessarily being a huge outcry about it in the first place. And, in fact, the government is even struggling to get it through Parliament with the support of its own party, let alone the opposition," Trenwith says.

Critics of the bill say attempts to criminalize the sex industry will simply make it less safe.

"If they did get this law up, 50 percent of the industry would be forced underground," says Kenworthy, the madam.

She says authorities haven't been able to stamp out prostitution anywhere in the world, and they wouldn't succeed in doing so in Western Australia either.

The legislation is stalled in Parliament for now, but could be revived after state elections this year.

Meanwhile, back at Langtrees, it's now 11 p.m. and the brothel is getting busier. For now, at least, businesses is booming.

Copyright 2013 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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