Dr. Hedy Fry: Sex workers and COVID-19
COVID-19 has revealed some uncomfortable truths about our society, as our prime minister pointed out today.
We have seen the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on marginalized communities. Each group comes with its own set of unique circumstances and barriers to basic health, social, and financial help.
As the Government of Canada rolled out emergency supports for individuals, small and medium-sized businesses, students, seniors, arts, culture, sports and nonprofit sectors, it became evident that there were some groups, so marginalized in our society, that they went unserved and unnoticed.
One of the groups with no income, no access to resources, precariously housed, and food insecure, and who are forced at this time of pandemic to work in risky situations in order to survive, are workers in the sex trade.
As a physician, I was well aware of the marginalization of those who work in the sex trade and as an MP, I continue to work with them to improve access to health services and safety.
This is not a partisan issue. This is not a moral issue. This is about public health, ensuring those who participate in sex work—like any other worker—is safe, healthy, and supported.
This week, I hosted a virtual roundtable with more than 20 individuals and organizations in B.C. and Canada representing sex workers. They shared, openly and frankly, their concerns and desperation. Most are not eligible for CERB, CEWS, grants and rent assistance. They face evictions, food insecurity, and poor access to public health services. They have families to feed and despite fears for their health and physical safety, they are pushed even further to the margins in order to survive.
My office will be sending a detailed letter to the ministers responsible—and also to the prime minister—summarizing our conversation and the policy concerns brought to my attention. I brief our caucus regularly, and report back what we’re hearing from constituents.
There are long-term challenges that we need to remedy. But that is for later. Right now the need is one of survival. Many of these workers have families that they are unable to feed or house. They fear evictions. They need rent and income supports.
They need access to safe and clean washroom facilities. They need access to testing and protective equipment. They need access to shelter. Yet they face increased violence because of the discrimination and stigma in some shelters.
Many of these, especially poor, migrant, and undocumented workers must risk their lives by continuing to work, in order to feed and house themselves. They fear contracting COVID-19, and the violence that comes from working in dangerous, obscure, and unprotected areas.
It’s a Catch-22 situation.
Sex work is legal in Canada. Yet aspects of the work are deemed criminal activity. So sex workers cannot claim income that comes from that activity. They are invisible income earners, unable to access the help that other workers can claim in this difficult time.
Right now the issues are survival, health, and safety from violence for a forgotten segment of our society.
Surely we can all agree that theirs are basic human needs.
I’m communicating weekly with ministers like Chrystia Freeland (Deputy PM), Bardish Chagger (Diversity and Inclusion and Youth), Bill Morneau (Finance), Maryam Monsef (Women and Gender Equality), Carla Qualtrough (Employment, Workforce Development and Disability Inclusion), along with colleagues like MP Nate Erskine-Smith from Toronto, who is also focussed on marginalized communities. We’re sharing best practices and what we’re learned from our constituents.
My office is working around the clock to ensure that our government’s response doesn’t leave any Canadian behind. Whether it’s seniors, students, small businesses, sex workers, or LGBTQ2+ communities—we’re here for you, we’re listening to you, and we’re adapting our policies to ensure you’re supported during this pandemic.
I want to thank each person who took the time to share your concerns with me. For some marginalized communities, interacting with government officials or members of Parliament can be daunting. I also want to acknowledge the limitations of a virtual call—it’s dependent on having reliable access to WiFi and therefore some may not have been able to participate. If you have more to share, please send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or telephone my office at (604) 666-0135.
I am committed, as always, to ensuring we don’t leave anyone behind.