By PABLO GORONDI
The Associated Press
Monday, September 24, 2007; 3:02 PM
BUDAPEST, Hungary -- In an effort to bring prostitutes into the legal economy, officials said Monday that Hungary will allow sex workers to apply for an entrepreneur's permit _ a move that could generate government revenues from an industry worth an estimated $1 billion annually.
Human rights groups often have criticized European Union member Hungary for legalizing prostitution _ which has been fully allowed under certain conditions since 1999. Opponents say legalization does not help prostitutes.
The permits allow prostitutes to give receipts to customers and become part of the legal economy by paying taxes and making social security contributions, said Agnes Foldi, head of the Hungarian Prostitutes' Interest Protection Association.
Hungary's sex industry _ including prostitution and the production of pornographic materials _ generates an estimated $1 billion annually, said Agnes Bakonyi, the spokeswoman of Hungary's tax authority APEH.
"It is one of the leading sectors of the shadow economy," Bakonyi said. "With this project, APEH is trying to help a group of professionals, in what is called the world's oldest profession, who have never paid taxes in their life."
Prostitutes in Hungary, can work legally only within certain zones _ distant from schools and churches _ and must get regular medical checkups. Pimping and bordellos are banned.
Prostitution is legal in most of the EU with a few exceptions such as Ireland, where it is banned. The Netherlands has legislation comparable to Hungary's, where prostitution has a similar status to other jobs.
Foldi said about 20 prostitutes already had been issued permits and more than 500 had applied to attend counseling sessions organized around the country with the help of APEH on issues such as financial planning and accounting, as well as legal matters.
"Our aim is to make sex work become accepted as any other job," Foldi said. "Prostitutes come from the poorest sectors of society ... and it's very hard for them to, for example, get a loan to buy their own home."
Foldi's group received a grant of $86,000 from the government's National Development Plan, which includes EU funds, to advise prostitutes on the licenses.
"It is important for us to have as many participants as possible," Foldi said, adding that there are about 7,000-9,000 full-time prostitutes in Hungary, rising to as many as 20,000 during the summer tourist season.
One of the prostitutes who already has been granted a permit said she applied for it in an effort to improve her future and self-image.
"From now on, no one will be able to ask me where I got the money to buy my house or my car," said Rebeka, who would not give her last name. "Now we are also part of a taxpaying group and we too are making a contribution to society."
Hungary is a signatory of the 1950 United Nations convention for the suppression of human trafficking and prostitution. But officials claimed the program did not go against the spirit of the convention because even though prostitutes would now be able to get licenses, the government would not keep a separate registry of them.
Critics say many prostitutes in western Europe are foreigners often lured there under false pretenses. They link prostitution to human trafficking.
Human Rights groups have said legalization and decriminalization of prostitution and the sex industry does nothing to address the violence of prostitution and does not help prostitutes.