Coronavirus: Red COVID setting leaves many sex workers struggling for financial survival

By Jean Edwards of RNZ

Sex workers have a long history of trading under a red light, but the new phase of the coronavirus pandemic has left many struggling for financial survival as vulnerable people in danger.

Christchurch sex worker Riley is facing a tough choice - take a calculated risk seeing clients or live in poverty.

"Do I work, even though cases are really high? Do I work so I can feed myself and family members who also rely on my financial income? So it's weighing up those decisions and it's very difficult," they said.

Aotearoa New Zealand Sex Workers' Collective outreach worker Sue Merrett said the coronavirus crisis had sent some in the city's red light district spiralling into a panic.

"It's been terrible, it's just dead. It's like a bomb has hit the city. It has never really picked up since the first shutdown, it's been really hard on them," she said.

Merrett said she was worried about the risks vulnerable sex workers might take just to survive.

"The girls ask to see vaccinations and if a client hasn't got one, it's a bit difficult - maybe you're in a car stuck with them, they might get a bit aggressive or something, we've had a bit of that happening," she said.

Some sex workers are relying on food parcels, while others have been forced to abandon the industry and go on the unemployment benefit.

Riley has drastically cut the number of clients they see to reduce their risk of getting sick and is instead seeing a couple of regulars with whom they have built a relationship of trust, discretion and respect.

They keep a thorough record of every visit, including the date and time, their phone number and name for contact-tracing, despite anxiety about vaccination passes breaking an informal code of anonymity.

"Throughout my life it's always been trying to mitigate risk with also being able to survive," Riley said.

Wellington-based sex worker Hana makes most of her money from touring, but plans to stay close to home and see fewer clients to reduce her risk of catching Covid-19.

"If I'm touring, I'm going to be in different hotels and I don't want to be stuck in a hotel, paying for that hotel and not getting any income," she said.

"I'm also scared because I have two grandparents who have cancer at the moment and if I catch something that could be really, really detrimental to them."

Hana insists on checking clients' vaccine passes and wearing masks, and kissing is forbidden.

"It takes away the intimacy of it, so of course they would try and be like please, take off the mask, but no. I tell them before they even come to the door, that's not even an option," she said.

Hana is finishing a master's degree and plans to dip into her savings if her income dries up.

"I am in a privileged position. I know others in the industry that aren't in my position and they are struggling a lot, it's horrible to see," she said.

Sex Workers' Collective community liaison Cherida Fraser said sex workers' phones had gone dead since Omicron started spreading around the country.

"It's quite scary for many workers who don't know where their income will come from," she said.

Fraser said they still suffered from the age-old misconception they were vectors of disease.

"Sex workers are great public health educators and have been with condom use for a really long time. They take their health really seriously, they had an early and high uptake of the vaccination for Covid," she said.

"That whole vectors of disease misconception is completely inaccurate and not fair and old fashioned."

Omicron's arrival in Aotearoa has coincided with inflation hitting a 30-year high, leaving many sex workers in a precarious financial position.

Some are safely earning money online during the pandemic by marketing phone sex or embracing platforms where they can charge subscribers for adult photos and videos.

But selling web content is a fragile business that depends on building and attracting subscribers with money to spend at a time many people are tightening their belts.

Cherida Fraser said sex workers were diversifying their business in other ways.

"They're selling worn underwear, they're selling nude Polaroids and things like that to their regular clients, but they need to have the followers and the clientele in order to do that," she said.

Prostitution was decriminalised in New Zealand in 2003, so sex workers are legally entitled to government financial support during the pandemic.

Fraser said many self-employed sex workers claimed the Covid-19 wage subsidy that came to an end last December, while others had applied for jobseeker support.

She said the occupation was unfairly singled out for Auckland lockdown border breaches last year, highlighting persistent discrimination and stigma that discouraged people from accessing their entitlements.

"There are a lot of workers who are fearful about the ongoing repercussions of that being recorded permanently on some record, whether it be at Work and Income or IRD or wherever," she said.

Migrant workers were particularly vulnerable because they did not have the same access to income support, Fraser said.

Riley said bureaucratic stigma made it difficult to deal with agencies like Work and Income and the Inland Revenue Department.

"There are no clear pathways to declare casual work through the IRD or WINZ and discrimination on top of that leaves me averse to interacting with these institutions, let alone fight for any Covid financial support I might be eligible for," they said.

"I feel pushed into risky situations because of these barriers."

Despite the difficulties, the collective's Sharon Harris said sex workers were often surprised by the kindness of others.

"You hear these lovely stories of clients dropping groceries off. It has just been random acts of kindness by some people that are totally unexpected," she said.

Riley knows they will not suffer alone if they catch Covid-19.

"If I got sick from Covid, my community will be there for me. That's really special and important because communities on the margins, they look after one another," they said.

*Sex workers' names have been changed to protect their identity.