ICRSE: UK sex workers response to COVID-19
“The virus comes on top of a crisis of poverty, especially among women. Most sex workers are mothers, mainly single mothers, who have been made poorer by austerity cuts. One and a half million people have been made deliberately destitute by government policies and four million children are living in poverty. That means that 100,000s of families in the UK rely on the income from sex work to survive.”Niki Adams, English Collective of Prostitutes
“Like other precariously employed workers, sex workers do not have a monthly salary we can rely on. We don’t get sick pay. Many of us exist without savings of any kind. We often have nowhere to turn to if clients stop coming see us and can face destitution and homelessness. We are facing an unprecedented crisis.Juno, Sex Worker Advocacy and Resistance Movement
The sex worker community
The United Kingdom has a population of around 66 million people and is amongst the European countries hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic so far: by mid-April, the death toll almost reached 15.000. The country’s sex worker population is estimated to be around 80.000 workers, many of whom are migrant women. Since the referendum vote on Brexit, the situation of migrant workers has considerably worsened due to rise in racism and xenophobia. Migrants from the European Union have been specifically targeted by the police and immigration authorities and many have been deported since they cannot prove their economic stability, as sex work is not recognised as work in the country.
70 % of sex workers are estimated to be mothers, who have been severely hit by 10 years of austerity and benefit sanctions in the UK. Many of them have reported to fight for the custody of their children, being regarded as unfit for parenting in custody proceedings. Women asylum-seekers are overrepresented in the sex worker community as well and are amongst the most precarious during the crisis, given that the only support available to them is a 37 GBP weekly allowance.
Whilst it is legal to exchange sex for money, anything that sex workers do to contact a client is criminalised. The most commonly used laws against sex workers are: loitering or soliciting for purposes of prostitution, which criminalises the act of offering sex for money on the street; keeping a brothel and controlling prostitution for gain which criminalise sex workers who work with others from premises and anyone that manages or assists in the running of a brothel. Civil orders against so-called anti-social behaviour are increasingly used against sex workers. The Proceeds of Crime Act which gives the courts powers to seize women’s savings and assets have fuelled raids as police get to keep a percentage of the money taken.
Impact of COVID-19 on the community
- Sex workers report complete or nearly complete loss of income since mid-March. By the 22 March, many managed brothels had closed down and workers were left without money. Few of them moved online, where there is huge competition and rates are lower.
- The only available governmental support that sex workers might access is universal credit, a payment to help with living costs. However, application is a very lengthy process and the level of financial support is not sufficient to cater for basic needs (individuals are entitled to 79 GBP weekly, furthermore people under 25 are not entitled to housing support).
- In the absence of substitute income provided by the government, many sex workers needed to continue working to feed themselves and their families.They are being scapegoated by society and media, with police reported to be surveilling online advertisements and aiming to detect sex workers as ‘vectors of disease’.
- Raids, arrests and prosecutions have been reported to continue in the country, despite the fact that criminal justice system basically shut down. Women working on the street, migrant and trans workers, who already have the highest rates of poverty, arrest and violence, are particularly suffering.
- Sex workers often face mental health difficulties, as the majority are single parents in desperate situations with increased care responsibilities.
Actions on the ground
The English Collective of Prostitutes has been intensely advocating and campaigning for immediate, appropriate and easy-to-access financial support for sex workers in crisis, a moratorium on raids, arrests and prosecution, the introduction of care income and the decriminalisation of sex work since March. Furthermore, they provide support to sex workers in accessing universal credit and hardship funds set up by other sex worker-led groups, food banks, and other essential services
The Sex Workers Resistance and Advocacy Movement (SWARM) helps sex workers in severe financial hardship with cash payments (200 GBP per person). Click here to contribute their Fund.
Umbrella Lane supports sex workers in Scotland with cash payments of 150 GBP monthly and carries out initiatives to increase peer support available during the crisis and to help those with mental health issues. Click here to contribute to their fund.