We have been told that the virus does not discriminate. Everyone is at risk; no one is immune. But as more voices emerge from the struggle, we see that the socio-economic strain is not the same. Especially for sex workers. The UK government has introduced packages to protect workers, from employees to the self-employed, but the nature of the sex industry makes qualifying for these schemes challenging.
The experience of an individual who can continue working remotely, with access to sick pay, is incomparable to the experience of a sex worker. In the UK alone, there are an estimated 60,000 to 80,000 sex workers, and even more who are unaccounted for. Sex work in the UK may not be illegal, but it is criminalised, stigmatised and overlooked.
The English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP) estimates 70% of sex workers are mothers. Most of them single. The majority of these workers turn to this industry due to marginalisation and discrimination. They could be LGBTQ workers, disabled, people of colour, migrants or single mothers. Following 10 years of austerity in the UK, cuts in necessary benefits and arising inequalities, sex workers have been driven towards the industry for survival.
This was all before COVID-19.
The systematic structures of our society have meant that marginalised groups have a heavier load to carry. Sex work is incompatible with social distancing, let alone a full-scale lockdown. Many workers rely on consistent clients for their income. Living from pay cheque to pay cheque has meant that the sudden drop in customers has left thousands vulnerable. Many lack the safety cushion of savings, leaving them with close to nothing.
COVID-19 is exacerbating the inequalities worldwide and sex workers find themselves at the lower end of the scale. As the industry is informal, despite the legality, workers cannot easily access Universal Credit or self-employment schemes with HMRC. Not to mention the undocumented individuals who are automatically ineligible. Sex workers will find themselves excluded from the safety net. Devastatingly, the most vulnerable groups who need the most support are the ones who are excluded.
Some sex workers may have taken the opportunity to virtualise their services through online platforms. But online work is less reliable. They may lack computer devices, professional equipment or simply have no privacy – especially since everyone is at home. It may be an option, but not for many.
Without any form of work, sex workers are unable to provide for themselves or their families. They face poverty or homelessness, or else their lives to continue working. Sex workers around Europe have admitted to breaking isolation to book clients as the state has left them no other options.
The Sex Workers Advocacy and Resistance Movement (SWARM) have recognised the imminent need for support. With reportedly 900+ applications since 16th March 2020, their hardship fund aims to provide mutual aid to sex workers in the UK in severe financial hardship. To protect their community, they are asking for support. The grant provides payments of £200 to UK sex workers with no savings to fall back on. But this should not absolve the government of responsibility.
This pandemic has exacerbated the disparities in wealth, income and Sadly, the sex work community fears an inevitable spike in depression, anxiety and suicide because of COVID-19. Statistically, individuals who experience financial hardship are more likely to suffer with mental health issues. The resilience of sex workers and their community is admirable, but there is more to be done. Decriminalisation should be advocated, and sex workers should be recognised as employees who are entitled to financial aid. They are human too.
Donate HERE for the SWARM hardship fund.
AUTHOR: Dila Yalman
Dila is an Intern at GGM UK. She is an aspiring journalist and currently studies Economics at the University of Edinburgh.
Dila writes and edits for her university's Economics Magazine, as well as for a start-up fashion magazine. She also regularly writes pieces ranging from academic critiques to political reports for her blog. Most of her writing reflects what she has personally encountered and tells the story of real people.
Dila is seeking to assert her journalistic voice while providing a voice for those who do not have one and this is what she aims to gain from her experience at GGM UK.