The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed many of the the pre-existing inequalities in society. It has disproportionately affected already marginalized communities that live outside societal protection mechanisms, often in financially precarious situations. Sex workers are one such community whose rights need to be protected and respected. Sex workers are entitled to human rights which include labour rights under the aegis of international protection frameworks.
From an International Law Perspective, the United Nations Charter (1945) obligates all UN bodies and agencies to promote and respect the “dignity and worth of the human person”, and The Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (1979) safeguards the right of female sex workers against discrimination. It also grants them the right to social and economic security, right to privacy, the right to work, the right to freedom from stigma and prejudice and equal protection from the law and freedom from discrimination. Recent research by Human Rights Watch shows that the criminalisation of sex work increases the vulnerability of sex workers, because attackers perceive them as easy targets due to stigmatization by law enforcement agencies. Criminalisation has also been found to restrict sex workers’ right to health.
Issues faced by sex workers due to COVID-19
Unfortunately, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, sex workers are facing increased harassment and discrimination due to a lack of access to emergency social protection programmes as well as financial difficulties. In most countries, given the criminalization of some or all aspects of sex work, the informal sector is unable to grant them benefits, such as access to national social protection schemes. Migrant sex workers also face the risk of deportation due to lack of work permits.
Workers can also get pushed into compromising situations, where they are taken to work with clients who may not have their safety or best interests in mind. They lower the price to attract more clients so they can support themselves. Workers may also stay on with abusive partners to avoid homelessness. Sex workers, who still engage with clients may contract the virus despite taking precautions such as checking for fever and taking the client’s travel history.
Many workers live in shared accommodation, which enables the rapid spread of the virus. Sex workers, including those working in brothels, are usually self-employed. They receive no remuneration for the period during which they do not get work. Workers are unable to provide for their families due to the lack of clients and may have no other employment prospects as many of them have been forced into prostitution from a young age.
The HIV epidemic is an ever-present threat to sex workers and it has now been added to by COVID-19. HIV, though does not spread through the air and can be prevented by using protection while engaging in sexual intercourse. HIV can also be treated through the use of antiretroviral therapy (ART). While it does not completely cure patients, it does enable them to live long and healthy lives.
Measures taken worldwide to protect sex workers
Germany legalised sex work in 2002 and has over 200,000 practising sex workers. The government ordered the closure of all brothels and other ‘non-essential’ businesses such as clubs and bars on the 14th of March. Susanne Wilp, the spokesperson for the Association of Erotic and Sexual Services Providers, states that business has gone down by 90% and due to their lack of income, they face homelessness. A similar fate is being faced by sex workers in Amsterdam, where sex work is also legal.
Japan has allowed sex workers to apply for governmental aid in some cases. However, the requirements for applications are rigid and will force workers to ‘out’ themselves to their communities. Employers are eligible for subsidies, if their employees have to stay home to care for children during school closures, and sex workers can also receive cash handouts. (Though the requirements do not clearly state whether the handout is for those who have lost a portion of their income or those who have been dismissed entirely.) The rigid rules require workers to show proof of income, which is difficult to show as they are usually paid under the table. Many sex workers do not report their occupation or entire income on their tax returns due to a fear of repercussions and a sense of stigma. Admitting non-disclosure of income could lead to its own set of consequences.
Thailand has made sex workers eligible for grants in the government’s pandemic relief package and the Malaysian government is providing housing and monthly remuneration for the homeless; most of whom are sex workers. These workers have to hide their occupation to receive the benefits as sex work is illegal in Malaysia despite being practised widely.
The Way Forward
Taking sex work online is one way for workers to protect themselves during the pandemic. This is done through photos, videos, video conferencing, and phone sex. However, this kind of work has its limitations as well. Workers may not have the required equipment or technical know-how to facilitate work this way. Workers with an existing base of online followers find it easier to monetize their online services. In addition, posting online may compromise the privacy of workers who may not want to reveal the nature of their work to family and friends. Performing online may also not be a viable solution for workers with children and families at home. A lack of consistent internet access may also hinder the ability to perform online. Moreover, workers earn less working online and laws are not designed to protect these workers from privacy breaches and dangerous clients they could encounter as a result of working online.
UNAIDS and the Global Network of Sex Work Projects have called on countries to take action to protect the health and human rights of sex workers. These measures should include access to national social security schemes, unemployment benefits and financial aid, providing healthcare services to migrant sex workers, appropriating emergency housing for homeless sex workers, halting prosecution and arrests for all sex work-related activities, ending the use of criminal law, promoting COVID-19 testing and providing visa extensions to migrant sex workers.
Sex workers need more allies. Global bodies such as Amnesty International and the World Health Organisation support their demands for legalization and decriminalisation. Sex worker rights should matter to everyone who cares about gender inequality, migration, public health or poverty. The need to protect sex workers during this pandemic is incredibly important as they are one of the most marginalised groups in society. Sex workers must be included in the decision-making process when it comes to legislation and programmes that can impact them. They should have the right to work safely and on their terms and this includes protection during a world-wide pandemic.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Astha is a second-year law student at the National University of Juridical Sciences, Kolkata. She has a keen interest in public policy, gender law, and public health.