On Tuesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that he would be extending emergency government aid that helps people who have lost jobs during the coronavirus pandemic for another two months.
But the extension of the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) makes no difference for sex workers who are ineligible for the aid—except for sex workers like Lisa.
Without her monthly CERB cheque of $2,000 a month, Lisa said she could have ended up homeless.
“I was going back and forth with my landlord, getting eviction notices,” said Lisa, whose name has been changed to protect her identity. “As soon as I told them I’m getting CERB, they got off my back.”
The 31-year-old is one of several sex workers in Edmonton who have been able to get CERB, said Monica, a sex worker in charge of the Edmonton-based sex worker advocacy group, Piece. (Monica only goes by her first name to protect her identity.)
The city offers licences for escorts and body rub parlours, which make it possible for sex workers to operate more openly—and pay taxes. (Tax records are required to apply for CERB.)
It’s a sharp contrast from other sex workers who can’t access the subsidy.
To be eligible for CERB, people need to prove they made at least $5,000 in declared income in the 12 months prior to applying, among other eligibility criteria, using their tax records. But because many sex workers and related businesses are forced to operate underground, they often don’t pay taxes, even if they want to.
Many sex workers are not eligible “because they either have not made at least $5,000 in the prior year or they did not file their taxes due to criminalization, immigration status, or other precarity,” Jenn Clamen, a Montreal-based National Coordinator for the Canadian Alliance for Sex Work Law Reform, told Amnesty International.
The problem is exacerbated for sex workers who are new migrants or undocumented workers and are scared they’ll be forced to leave the country if the government finds out they’re doing sex work, said Elene Lam, the executive director of Butterly, a Toronto-based Asian and migrant sex workers network.
Even people who have been sponsored to come to Canada and refugee claimants are scared to disclose that they’re doing sex work out of fear of retribution, Lam said.
Because CERB is out of reach for most sex workers, many have had to continue working during the pandemic, even when it isn’t safe to do so, Lam added.
VICE reported in March how the pandemic was inevitably going to hit sex workers harder than others, partly because of the intimate nature of the work.
Butterfly has received hundreds of calls and text messages from sex workers saying they’ve suffered from income loss.
The group ended up conducting an impromptu survey, obtained by VICE News, that found most local sex workers, especially racialized migrants, have reported serious loss of income because of COVID-19 and are struggling to pay rent as a result. About 80 of 100 sex workers included in the report said they still need income supports and very few applied for CERB.
“The numbers are alarming,” Lam told VICE News. “How are the people not able to apply for CERB going to cover their income loss?”
Sex work is criminalized in Canada even though sex work legislation, Bill C-36, technically says selling sex is allowed. Every other activity associated with a sex worker—paying for sex, advertising sex work, aiding a sex worker, and more—is prohibited. Because of the rules, sex workers rarely call police for support when they face abuses—they’re worried officers will shut down their workplaces, which would threaten their income.
Criminalization also prevents sex workers from filing taxes because they worry doing so would lead authorities to their work sites, several sex workers told VICE.
A spokesperson with the federal minister of employment, Marielle Hossack, said CERB applications do not require people to list their occupation, but she did not comment when informed that many sex workers opt not to pay taxes out of fear of being outed to authorities.
A small fraction of Edmonton-based sex workers like Lisa was actually able to access government support during the pandemic: the city offers body rub parlour and escort licences that make it easier to work openly—and they’re free, Monica said.
According to Monica, the best part of the licensing process in Edmonton is the associated mandatory course. “It’s an information course” that provides sex workers with a “list of non-judgemental accountants,” she said.
"Some forms of sex work are recognized as legitimate and that’s not something I’m used to."
“People go to work at a body rub, and when it’s tax time, we all do them because it’s accepted; it’s a social practice,” Monica said.
Toronto offers a body rub licence as well, but only 25 centres can be licenced at once and the city is currently at capacity. Plus, a licence to operate a body rub parlour in Toronto costs almost $14,000 and the regulations are stricter than in Edmonton.
While licensing has its benefits, Lam warned that it also allows local authorities to surveill and overpolice sex workers. The only way to ensure sex worker safety, both physical and financial, is to decriminalize the industry, she said.
Sophie Arès-Pilon, an exotic dancer, said thanks to Edmonton’s licencing system, “some forms of sex work are recognized as legitimate and that’s not something I’m used to.”
But the licences may not be around for much longer. Body rub centres were temporarily shut down in Alberta when the city entered COVID-19-related lockdown, and last month, one Edmonton city councillor, Jon Dziadyk, suggested they remain closed permanently, even after the pandemic ends.
Edmonton has already introduced a five-year plan to phase out body rubs, with council scheduled to revisit the motion late June. Dziadyk told VICE he suggested keeping the parlours closed because they might close in a few years anyway.
His motion has since been repealed due to time constraints, he said, but council is still deciding whether to remove the licences.
Even though licenced body rub parlours and escorts likely won’t be forced underground this year, Arès-Pilon’s still worried about what will happen five years from now.
The removal of the small gains Edmonton has made through its licencing system would spell bad news, Monica added.
“Dziadyk bought into the perpetuated media understanding of what sex work is and it’s mostly portrayed in, like, CSI Miami and shows where we’re all drug-riddled and pushed into the wrong path,” Monica said. “That’s often the public understanding of sex work is and that’s not accurate at all. (Sex work) is anything but that.”
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