The rights of sex workers are being ignored in the COVID-19 response: In conversation with Jenn Clamen of the Canadian Alliance for Sex Work Law Reform

Jenn Clamen is a powerful advocate for the rights of sex workers in Canada and around the world, and she is the Montreal-based National Coordinator for the Canadian Alliance for Sex Work Law Reform. The Alliance is a coalition of sex worker and allied organizations across Canada advocating for law and policy reform that respects and upholds the rights and safety of sex workers. Members of the Alliance have expertise, analysis and experience on the impact of criminal and other sex work-related prohibitions on the lives and wellbeing of those who sell or trade sex.

Six weeks into COVID-related lockdowns across Canada, Jenn took time to speak with Amnesty about the devastating impacts that  responses to COVID-19 are having on sex workers in Canada.

What’s changed for sex workers since the pandemic started? Has the pattern of human rights violations experienced by sex workers changed, and if so, how?

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the inequalities and human rights violations that the diversity of sex workers in our communities experience.

The criminalization of sex work and sex workers place sex workers outside of social and legal projects and increase isolation and access to non-discriminatory health, legal, and social services. Criminalization of sex work means additional, unsolicited surveillance and overpolicing of sex work communities, particularly those who are already overrepresented in the criminal system: Indigenous, trans, Black, migrant, and racialized sex workers, and sex workers who use drugs. The criminalization of sex work means that the informal labour and income that sex workers generate is not recognized as legitimate labour, and leaves sex workers’ without recourse should labour exploitation arise. As a result, sex workers are not able to interface with law enforcement should they experience exploitation or violence, and not able to access workers’ rights mechanisms in a context of a pandemic. Sex workers are historically and currently targeted by the public, law enforcement and government in the context of infectious diseases, so many workers legitimately fear discrimination and are therefore avoiding contact with government and social services in the current context.

The emergency measures implemented to “flatten the curve” and take care of communities in a context of COVID-19 have impacted the health and safety of sex workers, and also excluded sex workers from community supports. Sex workers who occupy public space are not able to physically distance in public space, and are also dependant on community for safety on the streets. As a result, sex workers are oversurveilled and trying their best to avoid law enforcement, which often leads to increased isolation and distance from much needed supports. Both indoor and outdoor sex workers who are not eligible for financial supports are unable to stop working because they need to feed themselves and their families. Many undocumented sex workers continue to lack access to much needed health supports, for COVID-19 or otherwise.

The federal government, and some provincial governments, have introduced emergency income supports for people whose livelihoods have been impacted by COVID-19. Have sex workers been able to access these income supports?

As precarious and criminalized workers, sex workers often lack access to other forms of work and government financial relief. Current financial relief programs are focused around formal labour, and many workers, including sex workers, fall outside of that framework. To make matters worse, because sex work is not recognized labour, sex workers are also not and never have been able to access labour protections should labour exploitation exist in the workplace. In a context of a flailing economy, labour exploitation flourishes. Some sex workers, especially the most marginalized, are not in a financial position to be able to stop working altogether and are at increased risk of surveillance.

Many sex workers have no income and no way of obtaining current government benefits, as they do not qualify for EI or CERB because they either have not made at least $5000 in the prior year or they did not file their taxes due to criminalization, immigration status or other precarity. Many sex workers would be equally unable to access lower-threshold government supports because of their social location and fear of the consequences of disclosing their name, whether because their income is criminalized and/or because they are undocumented and/or migrant. Many of the most marginalized do not have bank accounts for receiving direct or cheque deposits. These factors exclude sex workers from supports.  Also excluded from these income supports are more marginalized workers who don’t have bank accounts, who have strong reasons to be fearful of law enforcement and surveillance, and who won’t and can’t engage with government, and for whom the mainstream government benefit programs are not available.

What is the impact of sex workers not being able to access these income supports?

Some sex workers rely wholly on their income from sex work, and many sex workers do not declare their work in any formal capacity. While some sex workers are able to change the way they work in the context of COVID-19 by moving online or offering alternative services, many sex workers do not have the option of stopping direct contact sex work altogether. In all cases, because of physical distancing measures on all of society, it is harder for sex workers to find clientele. As a result, many are experiencing new and different kinds of poverty. If sex workers were provided with income support, they would not only be able to take care of their own health and communities in isolation, but they would also be recognized as workers. It is dehumanizing for sex workers, migrant workers, and other informal workers to be told that their lives don’t matter and that their labour isn’t recognized. Providing income support to only part of the population continues to send the message that only certain lives matter.

What measures can governments take right now to make sure that sex workers aren’t left out of the response to COVID-19?

Our ideal request is for the government to make funds available to informal, criminalized, and undocumented workers, in the same way that the CERB has been made available to tax-paying formal workers. Our ideal request would be that all workers in illegalized and informal work sectors, including sex workers, gig workers, migrant workers, and undocumented workers receive a universal basic income, or access to the $2,000 for up to four months available to others through the CERB.

Overpolicing and surveillance: Sex workers are suffering from overpolicing and oversurveillance in public and private spaces where public health authorities have unjustly called on “citizens” to contact police and law enforcement on sex work establishments. Police also continue to over surveil Indigenous women on the street and not respond to calls for support when violence occurs in our communities. As everyone is currently taking directly from public health authorities, governments and public health should instruct police not to give tickets or oversurveillance people are homeless in public space.

Safe injection sites have been closed because of a lack of life-saving and overdose equipment, and lack of prioritization of drug using communities. Overdose rates continue to rise, perhaps at a faster rate than death from Covid-19. Governments should re-open all of safe injection sites across Canada and provide them with PPE and other materials needed to save lives in the case of an overdose.

A lack of access to medical and social services has resulted in increased mental health stress. Many organizations that have sex worker specific clinics have been closed, since organizations have been closed to drop-in visits. Access to non-discriminatory and sex work friendly health services are very difficult to come by, which results in sex workers not seeking medical help when needed for something sex work related. Some sex worker groups have maintained phone access to sex work friendly trained medical staff and this is needed across the country.

Need for hotels rooms that are tolerant of drug and alcohol use: We need governments to open currently empty hotel rooms to homeless people and sex workers at risk of homelessness, and ensure the hotel rooms allow drug and alcohol use. Where hotel rooms are open across the country, sex workers using drugs or leaving the premises for cigarettes have been kicked out and not allowed back in.

Criminalization of sex work creates further isolation for sex workers who do not have the option to stop working, and who are experiencing violence and harassment and are not able to go to the police for fear of repercussions of working during COVID but also because sex work is criminalized and sex workers rarely access police in general. Decriminalization of sex work and the removal of laws that criminalize sex work is even more important in this context. Calling for a moratorium on the use of any of the federal sex work and immigration laws that criminalize sex work is vital. This could include a suggestion to provinces and municipalities that now is not the time to surveil and ticket local sex work businesses.

What measures need to be taken long-term to protect the rights of sex workers?

Sadly, many of the needs that sex workers have in the context of COVID-19, are needs that exist all-year round. Sex workers are often excluded from law and policy that protects and respects their rights as workers and as humans.

Police repression is a significant factor in creating vulnerability to violence and poor working conditions. A context of repression makes it difficult to report human rights violations and other crimes and investigate acts of violence, of which sex workers are targets in a context of impunity. Both the legal and social construction of sex work as exploitation contribute to a climate of fear and disdain for sex workers that promotes violence and discrimination.

The removal of criminal laws that sanction sex work is a vital step in protecting sex workers’ human rights.  The Canadian sex worker rights movements have called for the decriminalization of sex work for more than 50 years. Decriminalization is part of our larger struggle for the recognition and actualization of sex workers’ rights – including the right to autonomy, equality, self-determination and dignity. Many Canadian laws contribute and reinforce inequality, disadvantage and discrimination based on class, race, gender, citizenship status, mobility, mental health and other ways that people are situated. Decriminalization alone cannot overcome all of the injustices that many of us face, but it is a necessary step to respecting, protecting and fulfilling sex workers’ rights.