The new, prostitution survivor-led New Zealand organisation, Wahine Toa Rising, has sent this letter to New Zealand ministers to draw attention to the plight of women in prostitution during the current COVID-19 crisis, to ask advice about what support is available to women currently involved in prostitution and how the emergency subsidies apply to the sex trade, and to offer advice based on their own intimate knowledge of the realities of the sex trade.
In New Zealand the sex trade is fully decriminalised and prostitution is considered a job like any other. The letter brilliantly exposes this idea as a travesty.
23 March 2020
To: Hon Carmel Sepuloni (Social Development); Hon David Clarke (Health); Hon Tracy Martin (Children); Hon Poto Williams (Associate Social Development); Hon Jenny Salesa (Associate Health); Hon Julie Anne Genter (Women; Associate Health)
Dear Ministers and Associate Ministers
I am writing in my role as leader of Wahine Toa Rising, an organisation dedicated to the interests of women and children affected by the sex trade in Aotearoa New Zealand. We seek advice from you and to inform you of issues about which you may not have been fully advised.
Please advise us of the following:
What financial and other support is available for women and young people who are currently in prostitution, whether that is in brothel situations, from their own homes, or in street prostitution whose livelihood is affected by the Covid-19 pandemic?
Whether and how the recently announced wage and leave subsidy is available to people in these situations? From our reading, applying for the subsidy is complex and requires evidence of recordkeeping that most women and young people in prostitution, who are often treated as “independent contractors”, are unlikely to be able to provide.
If brothel owners apply for the subsidy, how will government ensure that women and young people engaging in prostitution in a brothel situation receive their rightful payments under the scheme?
What measures are in place to ensure women and young people in prostitution are protected from catching or transmitting the Covid-19 virus?
We will make any advice you are able to provide us with available to women and young people in prostitution via our social media accounts, and through our personal networks.
We wish to draw your attention to the following issues as we currently see no evidence that the government has taken into account the unique circumstances of women and young people involved in prostitution, or the risks and negative consequences that failing to address the issues will lead to.
Prostitution involves intimate physical contact. There is no way of ensuring that the virus is not passed on to or by clients. Thus, both clients and women and young people in the sex trade are at risk. Given the conservative estimate by the New Zealand Prostitutes’ Collective (NZPC) of around 3500 people in New Zealand involved in prostitution, multiplied by say, 8 clients a day, it is clear that prostitution presents a severe risk as a source of contagion.
This remains true if only a half or a quarter of these numbers remain active in prostitution. For this reason, brothels should be closed as a public health measure, and a special package put in place to ensure women and young people formerly engaged in them receive the same level of support as other people whose employers are forced to suspend their operations due to the pandemic.
We have read the advice provided to women and young people in prostitution by the NZPC. We consider that it is deficient in several ways. Firstly, the advice only mentions applying for Jobseeker benefits. Many women and young people in the sex trade are likely to avoid contact with government organisations, and if they do try to apply for support, they are likely to lack the required evidence and paperwork to access Work and Income Benefits. For this reason, special measures need to be taken as soon as possible to ensure that women and young people in this situation are able to have the same access to benefits as every other New Zealander or migrant worker whose income is affected by the pandemic.
The NZPC advice further recommends that women and young people in ‘full contact’ prostitution consider taking up ‘non-contact’ work such as webcam prostitution and/or pornography. This advice is likely to have negative consequences for women and young people as it encourages them to share explicit material via internet, where it is no longer under their control, and can be used to shame, harass and blackmail them, and may act as a deterrent to their exiting prostitution in the future.
There is no specific advice for independent contractors or brothel operators about how to access the recently announced wage and leave subsidy, or on what brothel operators’ obligations are to the women and young people engaged in prostitution from their brothel, who are almost invariably treated as “independent contractors”.
If no special measures are taken to ensure their safety and financial security, many women and young people in prostitution maybe see a downturn in their income due to the pandemic and be incentivised to work for less money than usual, and to engage in riskier activities than usual, with clients who are prepared to disregard the risks posed by the pandemic.
In summary, it is important that government takes special measures as soon as practicable, to reach women and young people in all forms of contact prostitution, to ensure their safety and financial security and to decrease public health risks.
Ally Marie Diamond
Wahine Toa Rising