COVID-19 ravaged the communities with which we have undertaken the research and exacerbated their marginalization, stigmatization and socio-economic precariousness (Platt et al 2020). Its impact highlighted the positive difference decriminalization makes enhancing the entitlement to social protection available to different strata of the sex working population. It also highlighted paradoxical dynamism and lack of resources of the peer community organizations that supporting sex workers during the pandemic by organizing fundraisers to provide their most vulnerable members with essential food and medicines (Red Umbrella 2020). Across the four national settings of the project migrant sex workers, and particularly those who are undocumented and racialized, are the most vulnerable populations because they cannot benefit from the financial support measures available to the citizens and documented residents (GRIPS 2020; ICRSE 2020).
In most states of Australia, those where sex work is decriminalized (New South Wales and the Northern Territory) or regulated (Queensland and Victoria) sex workers who are citizens or hold permanent residency are entitled to apply for income support schemes. These provisions still exclude all migrant workers with temporary or no substantial visa and those eligible sex workers who are unable to prove income and loss of revenue and/or want to protect themselves and their families from stigma.
In France, where the government approved in 2016 a law aiming to abolish the ‘prostitutional system’ by criminalizing clients and where helping and supporting sex workers can be easily framed as procuring or pandering, French and migrant sex workers have been excluded from the financial support measure put in place by the Macron government (St Denny 2020).
In New Zealand, where sex work was decriminalized in 2003, but only for citizens and people holding permanent residency, NZ sex workers and permanent residents can avail themselves of the financial support (wage subsidy) offered by the government. Those who are reluctant to apply for fear of their names and occupations being officially recorded, are encouraged by the national sex worker organization NZPC to apply as “personal service providers” (Lourence Stuff, NZ 2020). However, undocumented migrants and those on temporary visas are not included because they are not legally authorised to work in the sex industry as a way to supposedly protect them from being trafficked (Hansard 2003b, p6174).
In the US, where sex work is criminalized per se (except for a few counties in rural Nevada), all citizens under a certain income bracket are theoretically entitled to $1,200 COVID-19 relief checks. However, sex workers and anyone whose professional activities involve “prurient” content are ineligible for COVID-19-related financial support (Nolan Brown, 2020). This means that all undocumented migrant sex workers and those US citizens who have not been able to file their taxes under different categories have no recourse to public funding.
The comparison between these four national contexts highlights the difference decriminalization makes when it comes to sex workers’ access to crucial rights, including COVID-19 related emergency funds. In countries where sex work is considered work, sex workers who are nationals or permanent visa holders have been included in the financial assistance available to other members of society, while this has not been possible where sex work is criminalized. Yet, irregular, undocumented or temporary visa holding migrant sex workers are excluded from support measures in all sites.