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

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OTTAWA — 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.

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.”

49 COMMENTS

  1. Geeze, if you pay taxes and aren’t already collecting government money on the regular, therefore qualify … then apply. If you don’t pay taxes or already collect money long term and don’t qualify … then suck it up. They really kept the bar low for CERB. Without researching again … isn’t it over 15 years old with over 5,000$ income from last year? If you don’t fit into that …. then you must fit into a long term government solution. Anyone that made less than 5,000$ via employment last year was blessed by having much more time than other people. You cannot put a price on time and it’s invaluable. If you can do sex work part time then you can work many other places. Sex is physical work! Especially if someone’s paying for it … I’m sure they want some bang for their buck. Do a part time job to make over 5,000$ a year so you qualify during the next pandemic. Do your sex work on the side.
    So many people want tax money to work for them now when they didn’t work or contribute enough to the pot.
    Anyways … I can’t believe I commented on such a stupid article.

  2. Once again another article that I can’t believe was printed. I would much rather see as long of an article about seniors. Please stop insulting our intelligence.

  3. I can’t even believe I just read that. You get welfare or odsp. Your supposed to report every single penny and yet now they are crying that people with legal jobs are getting help and they arnt? Wow. Just wow.

  4. I am sorry this article is ridiculous. These sex workers should be caught for collecting social services or odsp whatever it may be and not claiming what they are making on the side. I work my butt off at minimum wage and I am not entitled to anything. If you can go out to do that job and put your family at risk then there is no reason you cant go get a regular job like everyone else!

  5. Everyone needs help. This could be the way out. Women should be helping women. Not laughing etc. No one knows what invisible back pack they carry. Someones child, sister, mother.

    • Ursula Nielsen so because she is someone’s relative people should feel bad that they are doing this as a supplemental to disability or welfare staying under the radar and still looking for government handouts? I’m sure if they are well enough to stay out in bad weather, and contort themselves for their line of work they can also make an honest living slinging coffee at Tim Hortons. I work, my hours reduced and I am not getting any suppliment from the government. I’m someone’s daughter, sister, mother and aunt. I pay my taxes but still no supplements.

    • Ursula Nielsen sure yes they do need help… but realize to they destroy lives.. they need to come to a place of remorse on their lifestyle and everything is a choice some good and others bad… both have consequences .Yes we need to look at them with righteous compassion… but not excuse behavior…coming from a bad hard live is not an excuse to live the same way… some have seemed to make a choice…we can tell of a better way to live but it’s a persons choice on how they conduct their lives

  6. Are they paying taxes on said income? Reporting it to disability or whatever government assistance they’re currently relying on? No? Then they don’t qualify. Yes they’re self employed, as am I. I file HST quarterly and pay yearly…. do they?

    • Beth Davison actually, a lot of sex workers pay taxes, not that it’s any of your business. However, you should be more concerned with filthy politicians and government officials in your own home town and who work within your city council who are getting huge tax breaks and are money laundering. Reverse your deep concerns to what actually matters and affects the larger community. Sex workers do pay taxes, especially the ones who do it professionally and run their services like a business. From their outfits to their travels it’s all claimed on their taxes. Your comment is super ignorant…. if you aren’t educated on this topic you shouldn’t comment.

    • My comment is definitely not ignorant. My comment was in response to the article that claims (by the workers themselves) that they are NOT claiming this as income and ARE using it to supplement their welfare/disability cheques. If you read the article in its entirety you would have seen this.

      Anyways.

      As for your other comments regarding government officials etc., had this article been about that I likely would have commented on that as well. But it wasn’t. If this article had been about any other group that scams the government, I would also have voiced my opinion. So, your defensive reply was not necessary as you have no idea what my views on others topics are.

      I am a hard working business owner that busts my behind every. single. day. I record my sales. I pay/collect taxes. I file monthly and I pay my balance owing every year! Anyone who thinks it’s “ok to top up” their government subsidy by not claiming their income is NOT deserving of these benefits.

      Period.

    • Beth Davison this is one article which shows how programs like OW and ODSP keep people living on the poverty or below. We must question why any adult or youth need to work the streets.

    • Georgina Riel You’re right! No one should have to live in poverty. I agree 100%. This is why we do things to make a better life for ourselves and for our children.

      And before anyone comes at me for saying any of that, there are MANY women and men who have lived that life and have found ways to make a better go at it. Sure, we all have issues that may keep us from doing certain things, but unless you’re on disability because you absolutely can not work (which would also mean you’re not able to be in the sex trade), there ARE other ways. Even a minimum wage job pays more than welfare.

    • Beth You’re assuming way too much. There are a lot of disabled sex workers, a lot of educated sex workers, a lot of Sex workers who enjoy what they do, many sex workers who pay taxes. It’s really not your business at the end of the day what someone chooses to do with their life. Sex work is more than just street based sex work, that’s your first wrong assumption. I’m not educating people who are going to keep their minds closed anyways.
      Ignorance is bliss, for far too many. Who are you to say that someone on disability can’t work in the sex trade industry part time? There is such thing as short term disability, you do know that right? Anyways, unfollowing this nonsense. I have no tolerance for misinformation or assumptions made upon an article. Sex work is work, and sex workers serve broad spectrums. Sex work is an umbrella term, and to be honest this article doesn’t hit as many points as it should, just like your comments.

    • Beth Davison it’s a service industry that the government has refused to acknowledge as viable! Lord knows that many in govt use this service…I’m sure! They should be entitled to the relief fund just as any in else is.. does a person on welfare/ Ontario works pay taxes? I think not… but yet they are taken care of!

    • Jane L Corcoran 🙌🏽🙌🏽🙌🏽. You’d be surprised how many government officials, business owners, and law enforcement rely on services from sex workers 😉. I could name names, but I’d rather not… a lot of people who comment and like above comments have a lot of fathers, grandfathers, husbands, uncles, and brothers who rely on sex workers’ services to get them through their days… but no one wants to talk about that, it’s a taboo subject for a lot of folks, unfortunately.

    • A.J. Sarah Ok. You are being ridiculous. I never EVER judged what anyone chooses to do with their lives. Not once. I was not belittling nor was I degrading. You, on the other hand, are making assumptions and getting all up in a huff for nothing.

      My point was a simple one. Nothing more, nothing less. Read my words carefully.

      If. You. Don’t. Pay. Taxes. And. Are. Screwing. Over. The. Government. You. Should. Not. Be. Asking. For. Even. More. Help.

      If they are paying taxes like anyone else working, sure. Take the CERB if needed. But …. if you are not and you are already scamming the government, then no. I don’t care if it’s sex workers, contractors, odd job Jack. The profession doesn’t matter to me, it’s YOU who assumed I was targeting sex workers. My comments were based on them because it’s they who were written about in this particular article.

    • Lois absolutely, your closed boomer mind wouldn’t understand. Sex workers are like therapists darling… a release a day keeps the doctor away. Oldest trade in the world, I don’t even really need to be defending this anymore. A lot of people have a lot to say about something they know nothing about! Clearly. 👋🏾

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