Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Sex work, income support and COVID-19

LBST 415 (Sex work and sex workers) spends a lot of time examining the ways in which different jurisdictions regulate sex work and sex workers. There are a number of different models.

Canada has adopted the Nordic model, wherein the sale of sex is not (usually) illegal but the purchase of sexual services is. In theory, this model is designed to extinguish demand for sexual services while making it possible for sex workers to access police help if necessary. In practice, neither of these outcomes occurs.

New Zealand, by contrast, has decriminalized sexual services. Sex workers are able to access all of the normal protections that workers access. The research suggests that this seems to offer the best outcomes for sex workers.

COVID-19 offers an interesting lens through which to view and assess these models. In Canada, sex workers are reporting that their income had dropped significantly as a result of the pandemic. Further, sex workers indicate they either don’t qualify for or are too afraid to apply for the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB).

For example, people who engage in sex work on the side to top up their (inadequate) disability payments (in order to feed their kids) are concerned that applying on the CERB could later come back to affect their disability payments (because applying indicates income over $5000). Applying on the CERB also requires sharing banking information, which could be used to track back to their clients.

These concerns reflect the stigma and persecution that sex workers continue to experience in Canada, despite the decriminalization of selling sexual services. As a result of declining income, sex workers may consider accepting riskier clients (thus heightening sex workers’ risk of injury or death). Economically forcing sex workers to continue to work during a pandemic also puts them at risk for infection.

By contrast, sex workers in New Zealand had full and immediate access to New Zealand’s emergency wage subsidy. New Zealand sex workers are also immediately eligible for job-seeker benefits (basically EI in Canada) if the decide they wish to leave sex work and seek other employment. Canadian sex workers would not qualify for EI and, if they did, would be forced to endure a waiting period. This is not to suggest the conditions of sex work are perfect in New Zealand, but simply the New Zealand model seems to offer better working conditions for sex workers.

While debate over the best regulatory model for sex work often focuses on working conditions and financial outcomes for sex workers and concerns about community effects, COVID-19 highlights that sex work (like all work) is entangled in a complex web of issues of policy issues. The ability of New Zealand sex workers to stop-out of sex work during the pandemic highlights how labour market policy and income support (which largely ignore sex worker in Canada) affect sex workers’ ability to control the conditions under which they work and how this has knock-on effects for people who have little or no direct contact with sex workers.

-- Bob Barnetson

No comments: