MADRID — A divisive debate over the legal status of prostitution has reignited in Spain after the country's staunchly feminist government was embarrassed to find out that it had approved the country's first sex workers' union.
Women's rights groups and policymakers have long been divided over whether legalizing prostitution, which is currently not legal but tolerated, would bring out of the shadows a lucrative and widespread business that often comes at the expense of abuse of women.
In Spain, prostitution is tolerated but unregulated. There is no punishment for those who offer paid sexual services as long as it's not in public spaces, and laws focus instead on combating human trafficking.
But when news emerged this week that the sexual workers' organization OTRAS had been granted official approval to incorporate as a union, many saw it as a change in policy by the ruling center-left Socialist party, and an attempt to grant prostitution full legal status.
But as it turned out, Minister of Labor Magdalena Valerio was deceived, she told reporters on Thursday, expressing her shock to find out about her department's approval.
Valerio said that the registration paperwork was technically correct but added that the government "won't back a union of an illegal activity that violates the fundamental rights of women and men who, because of poverty or other circumstances, give their bodies for others to abuse them."
Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, who made global headlines this year by surrounding himself in a cabinet with a majority of women, said in a tweet late on Thursday that his "feminist government" wasn't planning to support "any organization that includes an illicit activity" and that it instead supported abolishing prostitution.
Overturning the registration will require a legal lawsuit by the government, because its approval had already been published in the country's official gazette on Aug. 4.
Concha Borrell, secretary general of OTRAS — whose members include men and women engaged in paid sexual work — criticized the government for "hiding behind the curtain of white, heterosexual and bourgeois feminism to say that seeking labor rights for an impoverished and stigmatized group is an atrocity."
"For us is just a question of justice," Borrell said on Friday in Barcelona, reading from a written statement.
The anti-establishment Podemos party urged to turn the crisis into an opportunity to open a debate over prostitution and the legal rights of sexual workers, whereas feminist groups have been divided. On public remarks and in social media, some offered support to the sex workers and others lambasted their move to unionize.
Marisa Soleto, the president of Fundacion Mujeres and a leading women's rights activist, told private news agency Europa Press that "prostitution is not a job, it's a submission of women into slavery and into a marked situation of inequality between men and women."
AP journalist Renata Brito in Barcelona contributed to this report.