Illustrations by Hannah Robinson

The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed that now more than ever workers need to be protected. The UK Government’s introduction of the job retention scheme in March, that saw the process of furloughing enter mainstream employment practice, was just one of the measures introduced to ensure that employees remained supported during these challenging times.

However, as a result of the criminality status of sex work, many men, women and trans people are unable to access employment status and so fall through the net of government support, resulting in continued work with heightened risks. The English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP) highlights sex workers’ vulnerability to the physical and economic impact of the COVID-19 crisis. The collective argues that ‘thousands of sex workers are being forced to choose between their health and their livelihoods.’

The director of ‘Umbrella Lane’- a community sex worker project based in Scotland and North England, explained recently on Radio Scotland how some sex workers are entitled to claim Universal Credit. However, it is simply not arriving quick enough meaning that workers are left with no choice but to continue in dangerous conditions as best as they can. The reluctance to prioritise the needs of sex workers is, more distinct than ever before, putting them at unprecedented risk.

Street workers in particular will find themselves struggling due to lockdown measures. Many will be left with no choice but to continue to pursue work during the pandemic, despite the risk this poses to them and their families, simply because they cannot access support which would enable them to stop.

There is much discussion of ‘pulling together’ during this time, but I see few who are willing to reach out a helping hand to sex workers.

The Sex Work Advocacy and Resistance Movement Collective (SWARM) has set up a hardship fund which relies on public donations and goes directly to those who are facing difficulty. Due to the lockdown measures, the possibility of work is severely reduced and the risk attached to work has dangerously increased.  

Despite this fund being hugely beneficial to the community, charity funds are simply not enough. Whilst there are allies who wish to financially support workers, there is also stigma and a lack of understanding that means that many will find themselves reluctant to donate. In order to stop the alienation of sex workers in society and save their lives during this pandemic, we need to completely dissect the stigma around sex work. It is only when we begin to see this community as workers and people, instead of criminals, that we can ensure their safety and security.

The policies introduced by the government seek to reduce sex work activities at the expense of health and safety. Workers are at harm of assault and exploitation but often lack the means to pursue justice, because of the stigmatised nature of their work. Simultaneously, we cannot ignore those who are rooted in poverty, where exiting sex work is made even more impossible by the criminal status attached to them as individuals. The lack of support available, means that the government is actively allowing the sex worker community to fall deeper and deeper into a crisis from which they will struggle to emerge.

The question is, why should we not support sex workers? And, if we regard people who pursue this path of work as ‘vulnerable,’ how can we continue to support laws which further compromise their safety?

The theory of abolishing sex work is ludicrous and unrealistic, as unfathomable as the ideology that workers can exist safely in a time like this, without the government support that others are able to access. Sweeping sex work under the rug has never been effective, and it certainly won’t be during this pandemic. It is only when we recognise sex work as work that the safety of those who pursue it can finally be prioritised.

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