Sex workers currently face a dilemma between staying at home without enough money to survive or going back to work, exposing themselves to a bigger risk of getting infected with COVID-19. The spread of the pandemic and the measures undertaken by governments to combat it, has negatively impacted the sex workers’ rights.
Mass quarantines, self-isolation, and travel restrictions imposed throughout the world have reinforced the vulnerability’s state of sex workers, mainly because they are not a priority to governments. During the first stage of the pandemic, many sex workers around the world were out of work, losing incomes and housing, most of them were impacted by homelessness and lack of access to economic support.
Mischa, a sex worker in Eindhoven, talks about the current situation, and her main concerns.
“I’m doing voluntary work for a lot of homeless sex workers (…) Every day, I had sex workers in my phone crying; they could not pay the rent.
(…) Many sex workers are trapped. I see all the sex workers paying taxes, I thought that by paying taxes, peoples would see us as people, but we still being dirty whores and nothing more. So, it hurts me so much.
Taxes are for society, but we pay taxes to society, and if we ask, we do not belong to the society, it is so unfair. It is so difficult; to be honest in this world, it breaks my heart how people look at sex workers.”
International obligations for states to respect, protect and fulfil human rights can be founded in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the European Convention on Human Rights, among others.
Considering the inalienable, universal, and indivisible human rights’ nature, states, especially in times of emergency, must ensure rights to everyone without discrimination. Likewise, governments may recognize existing inequalities of sex workers, and mitigate negative impacts of policies and measures, which implies knowing that several inequalities were reinforced as a consequence of COVID-19, and the states’ answer to fight against the pandemic.
The COVID-19 crisis has shown in the last months that people who sell sex are one of the groups most impacted because of their job, not only because of their work is based on close personal contact but also because they still being victims of stigma and marginalization. Sex workers are losing their clients, and some of them their employment as a consequence of the shutdown.
In the Netherlands, some sex workers from Eindhoven and Amsterdam expressed what is happening. Julia, a transgender and refugee sex worker, describes her current situation
“During COVID-19, my situation was affected because clients did not want to come, they were afraid, then the government prohibited our work, and I did not have income for two weeks, and the government did not help us.”
Alex, a cis man sex worker, also lived a similar situation
“I lost like 95% of my work, that was hard. For the last five-years, sex work has been my main income, so I was in a difficult situation. From April to June, I still had some clients, like one every three weeks, which was not enough to sustain myself.”
Although sex workers have tried to move these activities online or improvise new ways to earn money, it has been hard to implement it under lockdown rules. Some of them have even tried webcam, but clients tease them. Usually, they had to undress in front of the client so that he could decide if he liked or not, and in the end, they never reached an agreement, losing the client and the possibility to earn additional money.
The state must protect against unemployment, and to ensure safe and healthy working conditions, because it is a human right, but also how was mentioned by the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) “because by doing so people are more empowered to be able to look after their health, to self-isolate and so improve the response to the epidemic.” Loss of income has also affected the right to housing; a lot of sex workers just became homeless because they could not pay the rent anymore.
In the international human rights law, everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate, including housing. In the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights’ words “steps should be taken by States parties to ensure that the percentage of housing-related costs is, in general, commensurate with income levels (…) tenants should be protected by appropriate means against unreasonable rent levels or rent increases”. However, within the sex workers’ environment, it does not happen; they are discriminated against on the housing market, as “they may be evicted from their homes, refused rentals, denied the ability to own property (…) denied loans and bank accounts”. Also, in terms of accessibility, sex workers as a disadvantaged group “must be accorded full and sustainable access to adequate housing resources, and should be ensured some degree of priority consideration in the housing sphere,” taking into account that due to their professional status and the stigmatization of which they are victims, accessing housing is not an easy task, even more so when several landlords do not want to rent places to them.
Even though in the Netherlands, the government has established solutions combating this problem, for instance, giving funding to organizations for establishing sleeping spaces, this is not enough to consider that the right to housing has not been violated.
“The government said, “sex workers do not have to get any money or fund from the government, there are places where the sex workers could sleep for free,” but all these houses were full; many sex workers got homeless and were sleeping on the street because of COVID.”
The inability to get enough income to survive and have adequate housing also results in a heightened risk of exposing their health and engaging in risky situations. Between poverty and working in fear, most sex workers have chosen to work under lockdown, increasing the risk of COVID-19 infection, and mental health issues.
“In my job as a sex worker, I am totally exposed. I tried to feed me well, take vitamins because I am aware that I was infected, and I overcame the virus, or I’m going to be infected, but the risk for me is imminent.”
Likewise, in several times sex workers must work with abusive clients and accept dangerous behaviour as they need money.
“One of the things that worries me the most about my work is that most of my clients want to do drugs with me.
With COVID-19, we are exposed, and even more with drug use. Drugs increase the danger, not only with COVID-19 but on all kinds of violence.”
From the start of the COVID-19 crisis, the international community and states have been trying to create measures to mitigate the negative impacts on the economy and labor environment. Through the resolution of 17 April 2020, the European Parliament expressed its concerns about the potential implications of the pandemic on the most vulnerable situations, and the need that the Commission together with the members’ states “must take all measures to keep as many jobs as possible and to ensure that the recovery is based on (…) social dialogue and improved social rights and working conditions with targeted measures for those in precarious forms of work”.
Following the guidelines, the European governments created the support packages to combat the pandemic, establishing as a priority supporting specific jobs and businesses, but without referring to sex works. Rarely sex workers benefitting from grants, subsidies, or recovery plans.
In the Netherlands, the government created the Temporary bridging measure for self-employed professionals (TOZO) addressed to give support who are living in financial
difficulties as a result of the Corona crisis. However, many sex workers do not qualify as they do not meet the conditions established by the government.
SekswerkExpertise and the Prostitution Information Centre conducted a survey until July to have a clear review of how the TOZO looks in practice for sex workers. The survey confirms that there was only a small group of sex workers, who qualify for Corona support, basically the only who works at the windows because they are registered at the Chamber of Commerce. All the sex workers working in close settings, like clubs or private houses, worked under the opting-in construction, which is imposed by the government and, at the same time, excluded from the TOZO.
Marjan Wijers, a sex workers rights advocate, jurist, Ph.D. researcher, and member at SekswerkExpertise, talked about what they are trying to do with the result of this survey. Basically, they wanted to identify problems related to TOZO, for instance, that in the opting-in scheme, sex workers have no choice; the construction is imposed on them.
“One issue on the agenda is definitely the fact that opting-in excluded sex workers for government support while they pay taxes.”
In the opting-in construction, the operators have to meet a package of conditions, like guarantying independence of sex workers. In exchange, the operator does not qualify as employees, so they do not have to pay social benefits. But, in practice, no government agency feels responsible for controlling it or enforcing these conditions. Basically, if a brothel owner does not stick to these conditions, nothing happens. According to the Prostitution Information Center and SekswerkExpertise, “The psychological impact of exclusion and feeling of social injustice is high. This is particularly so for the opting-in sex workers, who, despite the fact that they are legal workers with regular payment of taxes and other labor obligations, are not considered to be a professional category that has the same rights as other workers”.
It seems that the opting-in scheme reinforces sex workers’ inequality as it excludes them from enjoying labor rights but also to get the Corona income support as they are not registered with the Chamber of Commerce.
“For the opting-in sex workers is mostly totally unfair because they pay taxes, but they do not qualify for support, it is not honest.”
What should be done? Governments must include sex workers on their agendas. All measures related to them must be considered human rights principles, mostly participation principle. The participation of sex workers in government policy and decisions presupposes transparency and inclusion in decision-making.
“Nobody trusts the state’s protection (…). It makes it more difficult to develop policies as to develop good policies; it is necessary to involve all people’s concerns.“
The involvement of most affected and vulnerable people is fundamental to identify needs and realities, avoid human rights violations but also to build trust in authorities and law. Controlling the pandemic demands an inclusive response. Establishing health measures and social protection schemes require the participation of sex workers. Also, it is essential to eliminate the barriers sex workers face, including marginalization and stigmatization. Only in this direction will it be possible to build a humane answer to COVID-19.
Government of the Netherlands, Temporary bridging measure for self-employed professionals (TOZO). https://business.gov.nl/subsidy/temporary-bridging-measure-self-employed-professionals-tozo/
 Prostitution Information Center, SekswerkExpertice, Survey on sex workers’ access to corona support in the Netherlands: paying taxes but not rights, 2020.
 “Under this arrangement (…) the operator withholds income tax and VAT on the earnings of the sex worker, as in an employment relationship, on top of the regular percentage system (usually 50/50). The sex worker, however, cannot derive workers’ rights from this (…) If the operator decides for the opting-in system, s/he has to comply with a number of conditions to guarantee the independence of the sex worker. These include amongst others that the sex worker must be free to come and go as s/he pleases and cannot be obliged to take specific clients or perform services that s/he does not want to do. Due to the way they are registered with the tax department, sex workers who work under the opting-in system cannot register at the Chamber of Commerce as self-employed workers, despite the fact that the system aims to guarantee their independence from the brothel operator and that they do not have the rights attached to an employment relation, like paid sick leave, pensions, etc.” Ibid. p. 3
 Although there are other financial supports, such as the general social welfare, and the special social welfare, TOZO seems to be the most effective as it loss a number of requirements, including that there is no check on savings, no risk that people have to pay back, an also because it process only takes four weeks.
 European Parliament, EU coordinated action to combat the COVID-19 pandemic and its consequences, 2020, https://www.europarl.europa.eu/doceo/document/TA-9-2020-0054_EN.pdf , par. 32
 European Union. The Common EU response to COVID 19. https://europa.eu/european-union/coronavirus-response_en
 Art. 25 UDHR, Art. 11 ICESCR.
 UN CESCR, General Comment No. 4: The right to Adequate Housing (Art. 11 (1)), 1991, par. 8 (c).
 Global Network of Sex Work Projects, Community guide, Stigma and Discrimination Experienced by Sex Workers Living with HIV”, (n.d), p.3
 UN CESCE, 1991; par. 8 (e).
In this research article we have used various academic and media resources as well as interviews with the sex workers in The Netherlands. The interviews were conducted and recorded after taking consent from the participants in this research report. You can watch the full news video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IV7HB5LnTX0