Pressure from clients, stigma in system mean 'small amount' of sex workers operating during lockdown - Dame Catherine Healy

The founder of New Zealand's largest rights organisation for sex workers claims pressure from clients and a fear of stigma in the system are the major reasons why some have breaking COVID-19 rules by servicing clients during lockdown. 

Dame Catherine Healy told Newshub the organisation has been contacting sex workers following Stuff's report that some in Auckland were offering business to potential clients, despite not legally being able to due to the region's current status at alert level 4. 

Stuff claims to have seen text messages between workers and clients confirming they were working during level 4 and offering "in house" sessions in their homes in locations including Papakura, Mt Albert, Manukau and Auckland Central. 

Dame Healy told Newshub while the collective was mindful a "very small number of workers and clients have been unable to hold the line", but predominantly the response to level 4 from sex workers has been good. 

"We've been reaching out to sex workers who have posted advertisements online and checking in whether to see they are working, and some of the responses have been that they're getting ready [for lower alert levels] by putting adverts up, changing their photographs etc," she said. 

"So no, they wouldn't be considering working in these times.

"Some sex workers are doing it really hard and are extremely worried about their income and you know it's possible they are seeing some clients but being incredibly selective. But our message to them would be don't - [lockdown] is something we all have to see through." 

Dame Healy added there had been "anecdotal reports" of clients putting pressure on sex workers to offer services during lockdown. 

"Our message to those clients would be it seems extraordinarily irresponsible and it is upsetting for sex workers to receive those kinds of calls," she said. 

"Most sex workers have been fantastically compliant, as well as clients, but there are breaches on both sides." 

She also pointed to the stigma against sex work as a reason why some workers wouldn't want to access the wage support services available to businesses and workers during the lockdown. 

"Stigma is a huge thing for sex workers however and that is a major point of difference [from other jobs].

"It is very difficult for some sex workers to conquer the fear of coming into formal systems and having their name aligned in those systems with their sex work - for that reason we know a lot of workers have stood back and not accessed the subsidies available." 

To those workers, Dame Healy urges they reach out for support during this time. 

"Don't sit alone at home worrying about bills, reach out [for help]," she urged. "We as an organisation certainly can help you to do that. "

While Auckland still faces at least a couple more weeks of restrictions, the lowering of COVID-19 alert levels meant sex workers around the rest of the country were able to resume regular business, but with newly enforced safety regulations. 

The collective urged both clients and workers to "be inventive" and don their face masks during sessions, which is one of the rules of COVID-19 alert level Delta-2.