Sex workers in South Africa have called on President Cyril Ramaphosa to add them to the Temporary Employee Relief Scheme because they have also been hit by the coronavirus pandemic. They said they can’t fend for themselves because they’re currently out of business.
This was made known in a joint statement by the Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT) and the National Movement of Sex Workers, Sisonke, according to News24.
“Sex work is work, and they too need help as their livelihood has been disrupted,” the statement said.
“We also call on the president to take urgent steps and mandate the Department of Justice and Correctional Services to fast-track the sex work law-reform process and decriminalise sex work in order to address the evident exclusion of sex workers in accessing labour rights in times of need.”
Currently with over 1,000 reported cases and two deaths, the president declared a state of emergency that forced the country into a three-week total lockdown from 12am on Friday in an effort help stop the spread of the coronavirus in Africa’s second-largest economy.
“However, this drastic decision comes with many uncertainties for unskilled workers in the country, including sex workers,” SWEAT and Sisonke said.
In a televised address on Monday, the president said the 21-day lockdown was needed “urgently and dramatically”.
“The president, in his speech on Monday, vowed to ‘prioritise the lives and livelihoods of our people above all else, and will use all of the measures that are within our power to protect them from the economic consequences of this pandemic’.
“Sweat and Sisonke have noted with concern how sex workers are missing from the general conversations about support for workers throughout the pandemic and lockdown. We are not sure who exactly will be prioritised in the plans laid out by the president as he says ‘we are going to support people whose livelihoods will be affected.’”
Under the terms of the lockdown, the country’s 57 million people have been ordered to stay indoors. Businesses have also been ordered to close. Exceptions, however, remain for pharmacies, supermarkets, petrol stations and health care providers as well as laboratories, banks and other essential financial services.
“Since the outbreak of the coronavirus, sex workers have been the first group of workers to be affected financially by the spread of the virus. According to a study we conducted in 2013, South Africa has about 158 000 sex workers – the majority being female sex workers who support up to seven dependants with the income they make through sex work,” the statement said.
As a result of the outbreak, the groups say sex workers are unable to have access to food, healthcare, medications, among others, for themselves and their dependants, News24 further reports. They also added it was prudent for them to be added to the relief scheme.
“The president has said that there is a proposal for a special dispensation for companies that are in distress because of Covid-19. Through this proposal, employees will receive wage payment through the Temporary Employee Relief Scheme, which will enable companies to pay employees directly during this period and avoid retrenchment,” the statement said.
As a result of the criminalization of sex work as well as the discrimination and stigma surrounding it, the groups also said sex workers have been unable to register for the Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF), according to News24.
“In emergency situations such as these, they cannot claim for any financial aid from the government during times when they cannot work. Since the outbreak, sex workers have recorded a drastic decrease of their clientele, which has put many of them in dire financial strains that further pushes them to the margins and exposes them to risky sexual behaviour and violence.
“We would like to remind the president that, during this adversity that we find ourselves in, it is important to listen to the vulnerable and respect the wishes of sex workers in South Africa and heed their call for the decriminalisation of sex work. The criminalisation of sex work excludes sex workers from accessing basic human rights, including labour rights.”