The coronavirus has thrown millions of people into crisis. For sex workers, forced by criminalisation, stigma and discrimination to live in the shadows, that crisis is more hidden. Much sex work involves personal contact – exactly what we are being warned against if the virus is to be contained.
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.
Sex workers’ income is down and for some women it has almost disappeared. Some women are turning to non-contact forms of sex work like camming where possible. Women working on the street, migrant and trans workers, who already have the highest rates of poverty, arrest and violence, are particularly suffering.
Like other workers, we are being forced to choose between earning an income and risking ours and our loved ones’ health. Contact with health professionals and contact tracing measures are hindered by criminalisation because we can’t say what we do or who we know for fear of arrest and discrimination.
We must have access to emergency money. Sex workers are denied status as workers so we are denied the rights and entitlements other workers may have. Many of us, and the families who depend on our income, will face destitution if we can’t access whatever emergency money workers win from the government. If sex workers’ contribution to the survival and welfare of people was more visible, our status would rise and our demands would be seen to be more valid.
As our sister organisation Empower in Thailand says:
“In life and in emergencies, sex workers like other women, are doing the work of caring for others, yet this work is not recognized, compensated or supported. For example, even though sex workers create 4-10% of the GDP, sex workers are criminalized and left out of Labour Protection and Social Security.”
Sex workers too are taking care of each other and our communities with initiatives like hardship funds to raise money for people in need. This is an extension of the caring work that sex workers, mostly women, do for each other every day, which is largely invisible as a result of the prostitution laws that prevent us from working together for safety.
But self-help isn’t enough. We have to demand what we need from the state. Otherwise all the existing divisions will be deepened and the government will have it all its own way. Based on its record over the last decade, this will mean funnelling money to the rich and increasing surveillance and repression.
- We demand the decriminalisation of sex work and an immediate moratorium on raids, arrests and prosecutions. Decriminalisation increases sex workers’ safety and well-being. We demand the immediate implementation of the 2016 parliamentary Home Affairs Committee recommendation that sex workers on the street and premises be decriminalised.
- We demand immediate, appropriate and easy-to-access financial support for sex workers in crisis and worker status so that we can get sick pay, wage relief and the benefits that other workers are demanding. We need rent, mortgage, utility bill relief.. . . and emergency housing for homeless sex workers.
- We support the demand for a care income. The work of caring for people is always central but this pandemic has brought home how essential it is to survival. If we were paid for our caring work we could leave prostitution. See statement from the Global Women’s Strike.
- We support demands for the release of people in immigration detention and of non-violent prisoners, and end to sharing of information between immigration and health services so that people can access health care without fear of deportation and the many other measures that are needed to prioritise health, safety and welfare.