Government and police actions have been criticised as heavy-handed and “unacceptable” after three sex workers and a parlour owner were arrested in Sydney this week over working during the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to a joint statement by national and state and territory sex worker organisations, the workers were arrested on Thursday.
New South Wales Police have confirmed three workers were each fined $1,000, and the business owner $5,000.
Sex workers targeted
Sex workers are among the many whose jobs and livelihoods have already been affected by the novel coronavirus outbreak and physical distancing guidelines.
Brothels, parlours, and strip clubs are among the businesses that were ordered to close down nationally on Monday.
New South Wales has Australia’s most progressive laws around sex work, but workers are reportedly now being targeted for operating.
Escorts and others providing in-person services have been faced with criminalisation and “the very difficult position of having to balance potential criminality and fines against the prospect of no income and no access to financial relief”, the sex worker peer organisations said.
They have accused police of targeting and fining already-vulnerable workers whose income has been reduced by the pandemic and who have been “left behind” by federal income support measures.
Sex Workers Outreach Program (SWOP) NSW CEO Cameron Cox said that workers were at risk of poverty and homelessness.
“Sex workers are already aware of the importance of social distancing and other necessary measures to prevent COVID-19 transmission, but we cannot be placed in a position where we have to choose between being fined and criminalised or having our families and ourselves be homeless and hungry,” he said.
In relation both to the arrests and to another person in New South Wales who was fined over breaching quarantine, Minister for Police and Emergency Services David Elliott said that no one was “above the law”.
“If you decide to ignore a direction, you will be caught, and you may very well find yourself slapped with a hefty fine,” he said.
“The fact that people are still not complying is the reason why we have police out in full force enforcing these directions.
“This behaviour is not only reckless and stupid, but potentially deadly.”
However, sex worker organisations called criminalisation an “ill-informed” and “counterproductive” public health measure, drawing parallels to the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
Their statement noted that UNAIDS has explicitly recommended against criminalisation in the COVID-19 response.
It stated that sex workers in Australia have demonstrated excellent adaptability to public health crises by maintaining a low rate of HIV and STIs.
“It would be advantageous to the control of COVID-19 if the government was willing to work in partnership with sex worker organisations, rather than to implement criminalisation and penalties,” said Jules Kim, CEO of national sex worker body Scarlet Alliance.
“Scarlet Alliance and our member organisations are trusted community health organisations that have a long track record of delivering on health promotion within and for our communities.”
Acting President of Scarlet Alliance Gala Vanting said that the government’s actions against workers represented a weak response to the pandemic.
“In direct contradiction to the evidence and what we know from previous public health responses, the government has taken a backward approach in adopting criminalisation responses to this pandemic,” she said.
“We take the reliance on policing as evidence of a weak early-stage prevention phase on the part of government, and a failure to coordinate a strong response that engages the whole of the Australian community.”
Australians are being advised to self-isolate to slow the spread of COVID-19, and health organisations have suggested limiting casual sex.
Police have been granted increased powers to enforce physical distancing but no cases have been reported of sex being criminalised outside of sex work.
CEO of the Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations Darryl O’Donnell agreed that sex workers “take public health extremely seriously and have been at the forefront of efforts to slow and prevent the spread of conditions such as HIV” and called for “robust income support”.
As the COVID-19 crisis continues, sex worker organisations remain available to provide advice and support.
Scarlet Alliance has urged all eligible sex workers to apply for government financial support.
A community fundraiser has been established to help house and feed Australian-based workers in need.
Other emergency funds have been created for sex workers internationally.