B.C. sex workers face a number of new risks during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Unsplash)

B.C. sex workers face a number of new risks during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Unsplash)

Sex workers say they’re at risk, have been left out of Canada’s COVID-19 response

Many sex workers either do not qualify for the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit or are afraid to apply

Sex workers saw their incomes disappear overnight when the COVID-19 pandemic began to spread in Canada. Now many are in desperate situations: in need of food, rent, basic necessities. Some are now homeless and without any income.

Some facing especially stark realities are continuing to work — even in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Susan Davis, a sex worker and advocate with the B.C. Coalition of Experiential Communities, says she’s aware of many who are still working, including a friend with three children who does sex work to top up her disability support payments.

“She has no choice but to go back to work to feed her kids, and put herself and all of her entire family at risk because of this unreasonable assumption that people who are on welfare or disability know how to live on that so they can make it by, while newly unemployed people are acknowledged by government as needing $2,000 a month,” Davis said.

Many sex workers in Canada either do not qualify for the federal government’s Canadian Emergency Response Benefit or they are afraid to apply.

Many people believe sex work is decriminalized in Canada and only criminal for those who purchase it, but this is a misunderstanding of the law, says Jenn Clamen, national co-ordinator of the Canadian Alliance for Sex Work Law Reform.

There are provisions in the Criminal Code that make workers immune from prosecution, but not from arrest.

“That means sex work is still criminalized for everybody,” she said.

READ MORE: Sex workers face new risks during COVID-19 pandemic

This is one of the biggest barriers for these workers in accessing the CERB. While they are eligible for this benefit, as is anyone who has made at least $5,000 in the last year and has lost their income to COVID-19, many sex workers will simply not apply for it.

“The CERB only allows for people who are documented in some way to apply for it, because it means you have to file your taxes next year, it means you have to be in the tax system, it means you have to be accounted for in that way,” Clamen said.

Kit Rothschild, violence prevention co-ordinator for the Pace Society in downtown Vancouver, echoed these concerns.

“For a lot of people who don’t feel safe filing their taxes as workers, it’s really brought up a lot of stigma in just applying for or trying to apply for government benefits because a lot of people just don’t qualify.”

Workers who are paid through bank e-transfers could be risking their clients’ confidentiality and could be placing them in legal trouble — another reason sex workers would avoid signing up for government benefits that require banking information.

There are also some people who are on government benefits, such as social assistance or disability support, who resort to sex work to supplement the subsistence amounts they receive from these programs. They could be cut off or have money clawed back if they admitted to their additional income in a government application, Rothschild said.

“If they are folks who are on ministry benefits and also working and they maybe don’t claim all of what they’re making, then they are not eligible for CERB, but nobody who’s on disability or welfare right now is being given enough money to actually take care or their health,” she said.

For those who are still working, due to a lack of other options, they are now also being surveilled and policed more heavily than before, says Jelena Vermilion, executive director of SWAP (Sex Workers Action Program) Hamilton.

“Because they’re forced to (work), whether indoors or on the street, what’s going to happen is they’re going to be policed even more and liable to the new fines and potential jail time with the social distancing guidelines,” Vermilion said.

“There’s this compounded harm that we’re seeing.”

Those who have been forced to keep working may also be facing increased personal risk and danger, with increased reports of “bad dates” in some cities, including Victoria, B.C.

“What happens when work tends to dry up is that people take work that they wouldn’t normally take or people that have bad intentions are more likely to target people,” said Rachel Peters of Peers Victoria.

The Canadian Press interviewed a dozen sex workers and people who work with service groups and non-profits that support sex workers for this story, and every one of them said a universal benefit would be a better way to help them, as well as undocumented and migrant workers who also do not qualify for the CERB.

The Canadian Alliance for Sex Work Law Reform, Clamen’s group, has been asking Ottawa to create ways that sex workers and migrant workers can receive financial aid to help them survive the pandemic, including pushing for a universal basic income.

“We recognize they’re not going to offer the world, but we’re saying if you’re recognizing that certain communities are marginalized in this process, here’s a way to do it and one of those ways is to give money directly to groups who are directly in touch with this community,” Clamen said.

The federal government says it recognizes COVID-19 and the associated emergency can harm the economic security, health and safety of women, including those involved in sex work.

Money has been given to shelters, sexual assault centres and other organizations that serve women, said Alex Howell, a spokesman for Women and Gender Equality Minister Maryam Monsef.

“The government of Canada has introduced measures that will help to address the impact of COVID-19 on vulnerable people, including those involved in sex work. Women and Gender Equality Canada received up to $40 million to support shelters, sexual assault centres and organizations serving women who are the hardest hit by COVID-19.”

But the people on the ground say that money is not making it into the hands of sex workers.

A number of service organizations have begun trying to fundraise themselves in the absence of federal aid. Maggie’s Toronto Sex Workers Action Project together with Butterfly, a sex-work advocacy organization for migrants, have raised over $80,000 for an emergency relief fund and are distributing the funds in $100 disbursements.

Valerie Scott, a sex worker in Toronto who also does advocacy with the group Sex Professionals of Canada, says she is disappointed that Ottawa has not come forward with more direct help for the marginalized women in her field.

Scott says sex workers are “reeling” now from the loss of income and are feeling invisible to governments.

“This is not a time for governments to play politics,” she said.

“When I get calls from women who are crying because they’re terrified of going to a shelter, you just don’t know what to do.”

READ MORE: Murder of sex worker exposes Canada’s hypocrisy on prostitution: advocate

Teresa Wright, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Coronavirus

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

An original piece of artwork by Rosie Laponder, was stolen along with various art supplies from Julie Ann’s Art and Custom Framing in Chilliwack on Nov. 28, 2020. (Submitted image)
Thieves steal original artwork, art supplies from Chilliwack store

‘It kind of makes you sick to your stomach,’ says store manager

The paraglider pilot, while attempting to free himself, dropped 30 feet and sustained serious injuries as Kent-Harrison Search and Rescue members worked quickly to extract him from the trees. They were able to get him to a waiting ambulance at the end of a nearby forest service road. (Contributed Photo/Dave Harder)
Lower Mainland Search and Rescue saves paraglider in treetop rescue

Pilot tried to self-rescue but sustained serious injuries in a 30-foot fall

Still from a video surveillance camera of a man alleged to have stolen from several people at knife-point in Chilliwack (Rosedale) early on Nov. 28, 2020. (Facebook)
Violent crime spree involving knife ends in arrest in Chilliwack

RCMP looking for footage that captures violent crime spree in Chilliwack

A screenshot of a poster detailing a Dec. 4 protest against Hope council’s decision to reject BC Housing’s rezoning application for 650 Old Hope Princeton Way. (Submitted photo)
Protest planned following Hope council’s veto on supportive housing

Council voted 4 opposed, 1 in support, of BC Housing’s plans to rezone 650 Old Hope Princeton Way

Hope Secondary School. (Emelie Peacock/Hope Standard)
Update: Fourth COVID-19 exposure at Hope Secondary School confirmed

Hope high school the only school in Fraser Cascade to experience multiple exposures

A B.C. Ambulance Service paramedic wearing a face mask to curb the spread of COVID-19 moves a stretcher outside an ambulance at Royal Columbia Hospital, in New Westminster, B.C., on Sunday, November 29, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. records deadliest weekend of COVID-19 pandemic with 46 deaths; more than 2,300 cases

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry provides COVID-19 update

Fossil finds at Mt. Stephen. (Photo: Sarah Fuller/Parks Canada)
Extreme hiking, time travel and science converge in the Burgess Shale

Climb high in the alpine and trace your family tree back millions of years – to our ocean ancestors

Menno Place. (Google Street View image.)
32 family members respond to Abbotsford care home’s plea for staffing help during COVID-19 outbreak

Menno Home asks for relief workers for food service, laundry and housekeeping

Kettle bells sit aligned in an indoor fitness studio. (PIxabay.com)
1 COVID-19 case at a B.C. fitness studio leads to 104 more infections, 6 school exposures

According to case data released by Fraser Health, one case of the novel coronavirus carries a big impact

Vehicles drive past a display thanking essential workers in Burnaby, B.C. on Sunday, Nov. 29, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Marissa Tiel
B.C. changing COVID-19 case reporting as virus spread continues

Manual counting takes more time, leads to errors

Black Press Media and BraveFace have come together to support children facing life-threatening conditions. Net proceeds from these washable, reusable, three-layer masks go to Make-A-Wish Foundation BC & Yukon.
Put on a BraveFace: Mask fundraiser helps make children’s wishes come true

From Black Press Media + BraveFace – adult, youth and kid masks support Make-A-Wish Foundation

Christy Jordan-Fenton is the co-author of the book Fatty Legs, which has been mentioned amid the controversy of an Abbotsford school assignment on residential schools.
Co-author of residential schools book condemns controversial Abbotsford class assignment

Children’s book mentioned amid controversy at W. A. Fraser Middle School

Kootenay East MLA Tom Shypitka takes over as energy and mines critic for the B.C. Liberal opposition. Kelowna-Lake Country MLA Norm Letnick (right) moves from health critic to assistant deputy speaker. (Hansard TV)
B.C. Liberals pick critics to take on Horgan’s NDP majority

Interim leader Shirley Bond takes seniors, long-term care

B.C. Supreme Court in Vancouver. (Black Press Media files)
Judge hears Langley development case that could end in mayor, councillors booted out of council

The conflict of interest case was launched by local voters a year ago

Most Read