Canada’s exclusion of sex workers from COVID-19 emergency income supports is shameful and violates human rights

Within weeks of lockdown measures shuttering businesses across Canada, the federal government announced broad-reaching emergency income supports. But three months later, and even after government extended existing emergency income supports, many sex workers remain out of work and ineligible to receive emergency income supports, and all are working in precarious conditions.

“Sex workers are one of the most marginalized groups of people in Canada,” said Jenn Clamen, National Coordinator of the Canadian Alliance for Sex Work Law Reform. “Sex workers and other marginalized groups should be at the heart of the government’s pandemic response, but instead, continue to be ignored. Sex workers’ rights to health, safety, and dignity need to be protected in the context of a pandemic, so that they, too, can support themselves and their families.”

Like millions of people across Canada, most sex workers abruptly lost their income because of COVID-19 lockdown measures across Canada. But unlike workers in other industries, sex workers have largely been unable to access emergency income supports because the criminalization of sex work isolates sex workers from formal income reporting mechanisms like filing taxes, and because many live and work in poverty and do not meet the income thresholds for emergency benefits. Others, still, will not engage with government institutions for fear of repercussions due to criminalization, stigma and discrimination. 

Over 125 human rights, women’s rights, LGBTI, health and sex workers’ rights organizations from across Canada endorsed a letter calling on the federal government to provide emergency income supports equivalent to the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) to sex workers during the pandemic.

UNAIDS has called “on all countries to take immediate, critical action, grounded in human rights principles, to protect the health and rights of sex workers” such as by ensuring “access to national social protection schemes for sex workers, including income support schemes.”

“Sex workers have been reaching out to the federal government since the pandemic began, calling for emergency income supports,” said Jackie Hansen of Amnesty International Canada. “It is shameful and unfeminist for the government of Canada to deny sex workers the supports available to other people in Canada. Denying income supports to sex workers increases poverty and the risk of experiencing violence. For Canada’s pandemic response to be grounded in human rights, the government must take urgent action, working in close partnership with sex workers and the organizations that serve them, to create low-barrier methods of getting emergency income supports to those who most need them.”

The health, safety, and wellbeing of sex workers and their families has been profoundly impacted by the exclusion of sex workers from emergency income supports. A March report produced by organizations in Metro Vancouver including Aboriginal Front Door Society, Health Initiative for Men, PACE Society, WISH, and Living in Community indicated that almost 80% of respondants feared not having enough money to buy groceries in the next two weeks, and almost 30% feared not being able to pay rent. One sex worker noted “I am too scared to go to work because I have to deal with the public and direct contact with cash.”

A separate report prepared in April by Butterly, an organization working with Asian and migrant sex workers across the country, revealed that Butterfly received more than 500 calls and text messages from sex workers worried about their health and safety, and their inability to pay for food and rent. It noted that Asian sex workers reported increased racism and targeted violence and were blamed for the pandemic. One sex worker reported that “people lost their jobs, and life is much tougher without any income. And not only that, our living expenses have increased too, we also have to spend money on masks, gloves, and disinfec­tants. My only request is that I hope the government to give income support to everyone regardless their immigration status, or whether they are receiving social assistance… I also hope that government would grant permanent residency status to people without status.”

To respond to the crisis, sex worker rights organizations and advocacy groups across the country have raised money from within their communities to support each other to pay rent, and buy groceries, medication, and other necessities. Limited funding is available to some organizations working with sex workers through the federal government’s Community Emergency Response Fund and funding from the Ministry of Women and Gender Equality. However, such funds are limited and not a substitute for income replacements. 

In 2014, selling sex was made illegal in Canada for the first time; everything from selling sex in a public space, purchasing sex in all spaces, advertising, and working as a third party. Criminalization results in surveillance and police presence in the lives of people who are already overpoliced through racial and social profiling. As a result, many sex workers are isolated, do not have a bank account, may not file taxes, and are likely to be fearful of government and law enforcement because of the criminalized nature of sex work. Laws criminalizing sex work continue to be enforced across Canada during the pandemic.

“The criminalization of sex work is a huge barrier to granting sex workers access to COVID-19 emergency income supports” says Clamen. “This government has the power to protect sex workers’ rights by decriminalizing sex work, or at the very least, putting a moratorium on the use of criminal laws that make it even more difficult for sex workers to gain supports and care in the context of a pandemic. Government claimed in the past to be interested in protecting sex workers but they have been nowhere in sight during this pandemic. Denying sex workers emergency income replacements demonstrates, yet again, that criminalizing sex work leads to the human rights of sex workers being violated.”

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