Never before has inequality been more apparent than during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some “essential” must continue working in high-risk situations, while remote professionals can do their jobs safely at home.
Many have been buoyed by government assistance, but too many have been furloughed or unemployed, left on their own to navigate imploding economies on dwindling savings. Amongst the most vulnerable groups are sex workers.
Today, there are at least 40 million sex workers in the world, with the overall sex industry generating an estimated US$186 billion a year, according to the black-market research organisation Havocscope.
In many cases, legal restrictions have made it hard for sex workers – who are already at a high risk of contracting COVID-19 – to claim government aid, even though the pandemic has impacted their income.
In partnership with the University of Hong Kong’s Journalism and Media Studies Centre, Ariana explores the impact of COVID-19 on sex workers around the Asia-Pacific region, from Japan to New Zealand, The Philippines to Myanmar.
Collectively, these snapshots tell a complex story of how these often marginalised groups are surviving during the pandemic, which has fundamentally restructured economies, reshaped regulations and upended livelihoods.
Japan: Working in secrecy
As soon as people stopped coming to bars, salons, and entertainment places [this spring], sex workers in Japan saw their incomes decline sharply, explains Hannah*, a 25-year-old sex worker from Tokyo. “A lot of us could lose 90 per cent of our income [during the pandemic],” she said in an interview in April.
As a member of Sex Work and Sexual Health (SWASH), the most active advocacy group for sex workers’ rights in Japan, Hannah adds that many of her peers don’t have enough savings to weather the pandemic. In addition, most do not have health insurance or unemployment benefits.
In an attempt to help those impacted by the novel coronavirus, the Japanese government launched a 108 trillion Japanese yen (about HK$7 trillion) stimulus package, which earmarked 12 trillion Japanese yen for living subsidies. Yet the scheme initially excluded those in the sex and hostess industries, because local officials worried that the subsidy could benefit the “yakuza,” or Japanese crime syndicates.
But according to Professor Kaoru Aoyama, a sociologist from Kobe University in Hyogo prefecture, “yakuza involvement has not been at the forefront [of the sex industry] over the last 20 years or so.” “Many of them are run by ordinary people or at least ordinary businesses.”
In Japan, sex work generates an estimated US$24 billion (around HK$186 billion) per year as an industry, according to Havocscope. It’s big business, yet the country’s Prostitution Prevention Law still criminalised sex work.
After a heated Twitter battle, SWASH sent an open letter to the government, asking for all forms of employment to be included in the subsidy program. SWASH wrote:
“We hope that people in the sex industry, along with their children, can be treated equally as other workers and their children, that their rights to live can be equally protected. Whether or not providing support to the person should be evaluated by the difficulties the person is having, rather than whether the person is working in the sex industry or not.”
The government revised its guideline to include sex workers in two major schemes.
Still, Hannah believes it’s not enough. “It was a mentally and politically significant win,” she says. “But there is still so much paperwork that one needs to go through to get the subsidy, which is not easy for a lot of people.”
There are also other limitations. According to Hannah, only sex workers who have children in school can apply for this financial assistance. However, many sex workers in Japan don’t have children. In fact, many are students themselves or juggling multiple jobs to make ends meet.
Mia*, 26, a sex worker living in Osaka, is one such student. Mia relies on the income to pay off student debt, said in April she was still meeting clients two or three times per week, despite the risks of infection. Due to pervasive social stigma, she is more concerned about keeping her occupation a secret than catching COVID-19.
“If you or your clients were infected, the health authorities would need to know how you caught it, right?” she wonders. “I am very anxious because I don’t want my family and my school to know.” — Chloe Feng
Myanmar: HIV treatment on hold
Myanmar counts approximately 66,000 sex workers amongst its population of roughly 54 million. Of those sex workers, around 8 per cent are HIV-positive.
When Myanmar experienced an outbreak of COVID-19 in late March, antiretroviral therapy (ART), one of the most important interventions for people living with HIV/AIDS, became more difficult to access in several locked-down regions. Due to insufficient medical resources, some hospitals prioritised COVID-19 treatment, postponing other therapies.
“Sex workers’ sexual and reproductive health is in danger, because of the pandemic,” says Kay Thi Win, the founder of major sex workers’ rights group Aye Myanmar Association (AMA).
In Myanmar, it is illegal to be a sex worker. The Suppression of Prostitution Act, established in 1949, leaves sex workers without access to government resources, and many of them are still looking for clients on the street. According to Win, 70 per cent of sex workers support their families financially.
The lack of protection of sex workers has led to other issues. More than 54 per cent of female sex workers and over 34 per cent of transgender sex workers in Myanmar have encountered violence from clients, according to a 2017 survey by AMA and Asia Pacific Network of Service Workers.
COVID-19 has only exacerbated the situation. “Because there are fewer people in the street today, [sexual and] gender-based violence [against sex workers] can take place much easier,” says Win — Yang Ziyu
Thailand: Excluded from relief
Thailand’s government imposed a state of emergency in late March to contain the pandemic, which is now relatively under control. At the height of the outbreak, however, the measure shut down entertainment venues and brothels, forcing many sex workers onto the streets.
Service Workers in Groups Foundation (SWING), a Thai organisation protecting the health and human rights of sex workers, took action by distributing meals to street-based sex workers in Bangkok that same month. Unfortunately, police arrested and fined the workers on the second day of their relief efforts.
“We had to fight with all these authorities to get these workers some help,” says Chalidaporn Songsamphan, president of SWING.
In Thailand, many sex workers are breadwinners working to support their families. Approximately 80 per cent have children, according to a report by Empower Foundation, a local sex worker advocacy group.
“It is very common in Thailand that men leave their hometown to work somewhere else, or just disappear, leaving their wives and children behind,” says Songsamphan. “It ends up that women, especially those who have low income, are financially responsible for their children and parents.”
In April, the government launched a program to allocate a 5,000 baht (HK$1,240) relief package for the newly unemployed, later promising to extend it to cover more than 16 million people.
But Songsamphan says the government rejected the applications of those who wrote “sex worker” as their occupation. “Few got support from the government, but they had to claim that they worked in a school or whatever, kind of lying,” she says. Worse still, most sex workers couldn’t even apply because they don’t have internet access.
Hla*, a 29-year-old Burmese sex worker living in Chiang Mai, used to send money back home every month to support her family of four. She is among those excluded from the relief package. “I won’t be able to pay the rent for another month, and I can’t go home as they closed the border,” Hla says. “I feel left out by society.”
The need to survive left some sex workers with no choice but to work on the street without masks. “Because potential clients want to see their faces,” says Songsamphan.
According to Piyanut Kotsan, Director of Amnesty International Thailand, many sex workers, both Thai and non-Thai, became homeless as a result of the socioeconomic impact of the pandemic.
Meanwhile, the Thai government imposed a nationwide curfew from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m. from early April until June. During that period, several sex workers were arrested for violating the curfew due to the nature of sex work and increased rates of homelessness amongst the community.
“The Prime Minister said they will not leave anyone behind, but there have been a lot of people left behind,” says Kotsan.
According to Songsamphan, sex workers may be among the last communities to recover from this pandemic. “At this moment, it is safe enough to say that almost all of the sex workers are still trying to work,” she added. — Yang Ziyu
New Zealand: No safety net for migrants
With an aim to curtail exploitation, safeguard human rights and create a healthier environment for sex workers, New Zealand decriminalised the industry in 2003. In the island nation, sex work is treated like any other legal profession, and those within the industry enjoy the same rights as other workers.
However, this law only applies to the nation’s citizens, posing a problem for a segment of sex workers, since many are foreign migrants.
After the nation went into lockdown in late March due to COVID-19, sex workers could apply for the government’s financial rescue package. This package gave them access to a subsidy of up to $585.8 NZD (roughly HK$3,000) per week for a total of 12 weeks.
“The lockdown is hard on everybody, but it’s harder on us – sex workers, migrant sex workers,”*Thiago
“That’s the law: when sex workers stop sex work, the government must assist by giving them alternative money to live on,” says Dame Catherine Healy, 64, the national coordinator and founding member of New Zealand Prostitutes Collective (NZPC). As a leading advocate, Healy has fought for and witnessed the legalisation and decriminalisation of the industry.
The subsidy, according to Healy, benefitted roughly 3,500 sex workers across the country. With this support, many sex workers stopped taking clients for several months. Those who were unemployed could also apply for welfare benefits called Job Seeker Allowances. However, none of these schemes applies to migrant sex workers – a group that NZPC is most concerned about.
“The lockdown is hard on everybody, but it’s harder on us – sex workers, migrant sex workers,” says Thiago*, a 34-year-old male migrant sex worker and artist from South America who has been living in Auckland for a year.
Under Section 19 of the Prostitution Reform Act, migrants on temporary visas are forbidden from engaging in sex work. But during the coronavirus crisis, they have no other way to support themselves. “The disparity of legal protection means that they are more exposed to potential risks,” Healy says.
In New Zealand, a large percentage of migrant sex workers come from mainland China, Hong Kong, Southeast Asia, and South America, according to Healy.
Last year, the Immigration New Zealand Compliance Officers visited 57 brothels in cities across the nation. The officers identified 66 migrant sex workers; all but one were Chinese nationals.
After the outbreak, the government repatriated some migrant workers. Thiago says he knows one who was deported in April.
Thiago met his last client on March 18, one week before the national lockdown. Since then, he has relied on his savings to get by. “If I run out of money, I will have to try to survive and start accepting clients [again],” he says.
As one of the few countries to successfully contain the virus, New Zealand gradually lifted its national lockdown in late May. Sex workers, therefore, can now resume their work. But for migrants like Thiago, it is still risky.
“It’s time to rethink the laws,” he says. “[Migrant sex workers] need help, but it’s very hard for us to reach out. When we try to explain why we need help, we always get stuck because we are illegal.” — Chloe Feng
The Philippines: Precarious work
Under Article 202 of the Revised Penal Code 2012, prostitution is illegal in the Philippines. But loopholes see ‘escorts’ rebranded as ‘entertainers,’ and ‘tips’ called ‘fines’ to skirt the laws.
With few protections and trafficking-like practices, sex work is a particularly precarious industry in the Philippines, according to Kenny Sacht, founder of the anti-sex trade charity Wipe Every Tear.
“Every woman that I have ever met,” Sacht tells me, “and I mean ever, ever, ever, ever, ever met – has said they were tricked into coming to Angeles City,” a city in Central Luzon, with a population just under half a million.
Sacht believes COVID-19 puts these victims in even more danger. Sacht was in Angeles City on 16 March 2020, the day the region went into lockdown. Usually a busy sex-tourism hub, Angeles was suddenly “a ghost town,” recalls Sacht. “My heart immediately went out to the women thinking, ‘What are they gonna do?’”
Their backstories, Sacht claims, are often similar: “In this country, you can’t work at McDonald’s, Dairy Queen, Jollibee, or a mall kiosk selling peanuts without a college degree.”
This makes low-income and less educated women more vulnerable to false promises of cooking, cleaning or housekeeping jobs. “They get to Angeles and the boss says, ‘Sorry, you’re too late. All those jobs are taken.’ The boss points to a box of clothes, thongs and bikinis, and says, ‘Take that, put it on, and be out here at 6 o’clock.’” The girls and women take the job out of desperation and fear.
Since COVID, sex workers in the region have faced a new set of challenges – namely hunger, health and homelessness. According to Sacht, his outreach project must tackle an unprecedented need, particularly for food. While Wipe Every Tear continues to provide everyday support (education, housing, meals and even childcare for a group of former sex-workers) it is now also feeding roughly 50 women and girls every day who are all struggling to get by.
As a silver lining, Sacht says the dire situation has motivated many women to change course. “In the midst of this, women are telling us that they want out [of sex work],” Sacht says. “They’re contacting us, people we’ve never heard from before,” promising to join his community once restrictions ease.
Redel Comia, at Safe Refuge Philippines, also provides a support programme. At the gated safehouse, a team of volunteers helps sex-trafficking victims get back on their feet.
Unlike Sacht, however, Comia says some sex workers seem reluctant to leave their occupation behind during this uncertain time. Education, she says, is the key to instill confidence in these women and empower them to choose a safer path.
“The moment they see themselves differently and have that paradigm shift, they feel like, ‘Okay, I’m back. I can do something else.’” — Timothy Petkovic, Philippines
*Names have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals
Additional reporting by Alexandra Perry and Salomé Grouard. Translations by Chloe Feng, Yang Ziyu and Rosa Chen
This series was produced in partnership with students from the University of Hong Kong’s Journalism and Media Studies Centre.