Toronto Sex Workers Supported By COVID-19 Relief Fund

Two Toronto non-profits are teaming up for a relief fund.

Small business closures, losing customers, and anti-Asian discrimination: these COVID-19 job woes sound familiar to many Canadians, including those in the sex work industry.

But unlike most in the workforce, sex workers in Canada don’t get a safety net when their workplace shuts down.

The nature of their work means workers may not be eligible for the federal government’s pandemic relief benefit nor employment insurance (EI).

Watch: how the Coronavirus will affect Canada’s economy. Story continues below.

Asian migrant workers in particular are experiencing coronavirus-related racism, according to Elene Lam. The founder of Butterfly, a sex work advocacy organization for migrants in Canada, says massage parlour workers have told her they’re getting prejudiced treatment.

“The virus is being seen as a Chinese virus, there was bullying... [someone told me] ‘You should not find Asian girls, don’t go to Chinatown,’” she told HuffPost Canada.

Because of their status, migrant workers are often erased from income support conversations from the get-go, she adds, which has led migrant rights groups to call on the government for inclusion.

To combat overwhelming income loss reported by their communities, Butterfly and long-standing non-profit Maggie’s Sex Worker Action Group, known as Maggie’s, have teamed up to host a COVID-19 emergency fund for local sex workers struggling to support themselves and their families during a pandemic.

Within 48 hours of launching, the fund raised more than $11,000, thanks to donations from more than 150 people and support from notable Torontonians, like author Kai Cheng Thom, and Canadian businesses.

Every worker who applies to the fund gets a one-time grant of $100, doled out weekly. That means at least 100 local workers have guaranteed aid from the fund. But even with the thousands already secured, a Maggie’s representative says the number of applications from workers still far outweighs what’s available.

Similar sex worker support initiatives have popped up across Canada, with the PACE Society providing financial relief in Vancouver.

Advocacy organization Stella in Montreal is accepting donated sanitary items on behalf of its service users.

Sex work is real work, but government relief won’t aid many

Income loss and anxiety about getting by are such common experiences that a cheeky bingo card has been shared among Toronto’s sex worker community.

The bingo card’s boxes are common worries Maggie’s board member Ellie Ade Kur is hearing from Toronto sex workers. She’s also hearing survival concerns from vulnerable sectors, such as those who access shelters and food banks.

Sex work itself is decriminalized in Canada, but the industry is socially stigmatized and often on murky legal grounds. Government aid that requires legal identification or background checks may be invasive or impossible to comply with for survival sex workers, Ade Kur notes, a term the Canadian Public Health Association defines as those who engage in sex work out of “extreme need.”

Under current labour legislation, many types of sex work, such as exotic dancing or stripping, would fall under independent contract work. However, the informal economy many full-service providers (those that provide intercourse as a service) take part in disqualifies them from labour protections like sick days, parental leave, and employee benefits.

Watch: how sex work works in Canada. Story continues below.

Without legal aid venues for workers on the street, Ade Kur says efforts like the emergency fund are a form of “community defence” that recognize the pre-existing labour issues faced by workers, who experts say often face violence because of their criminalized industry. Canadian laws make the logistics of selling sex illegal: for example, one can be charged for paying for sex or being a “third party” who helps workers run their businesses.

COVID-19 safer sex tips for those still working

Along with the fund, the two non-profits released a resource guide for sex workers still on the job during COVID-19.

Many of the tips are similar to precautions recommended to frontline workers — hand-washing, avoiding close contact when possible, staying home if one feels ill, visiting an assessment centre if COVID-19 symptoms appear — but the guide doesn’t aim to convince workers to stop necessary intimacy measures completely.

In fact, it prioritizes a harm reduction approach for workers who continue to see clients; sex positions that don’t require facial closeness, sanitizing equipment, and avoiding kissing are some suggestions the guide makes.

“We recognize workers still need to survive,”Ade Kur said regarding sex workers who can’t socially distance, adding that unlike historic misconceptions blaming sex workers for spreading disease, sex workers have long been experts at evaluating their health and safety.

Camming, porn isn’t always accessible

Starting online sex work like camming is a running joke online. And while Ade Kur acknowledges shifting to online sex work is a good option for those looking to continue working virtually, it’s not as easy as some might think.

Some may not have access to electronic devices or aren’t able to tap into the same clientele that they can in-person.

Many of the workers who use Maggie’s and Butterfly’s resources like their drop-in programs aren’t online workers, Ade Kur notes, and survival sex workers can’t pivot to a whole different sector of the industry at the drop of a dime. To assist those who are making the career switch, Maggie’s plans to host a digital seminar to educate workers curious about the digital infrastructure.

What’s more, the mentality undermines the skills needed to convince people to pay for online sexual services.

“It ignores the time, effort, technique, and resources that go into it,” she said. “I think a lot of people are in for a rude awakening if they think they can snap their fingers and be [successful] like that.”

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