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Worsening of the situation of sex workers during the corona pandemic

The corona crisis and the two lockdowns hit the sex workers group particularly hard. The situation plunges the sex service providers into an existential emergency. Many of them not only lost their place of work but also their place of residence; Often it is also not possible to switch to “online services”. While other self-employed people are supported by assistance, sex workers fall through the security systems due to legal unequal treatment. In view of the special nature of sex work, it is time to take specific measures to protect service providers.

As of mid-March, all forms of sexual services were banned. Since the Relaxation Ordinance in April did not cover this profession, the absolute professional ban was in effect until July 1st. The general ban on the profession created great difficulties. A total of 8,000 registered sex workers - although the number of unreported cases is far higher - affected. Since November 3rd, according to the new regulation, sex workers are again banned from doing sex work.

Aside from the loss of income, many of them also lost their homes, as their workplaces often also serve as homes. Switching to other services, such as phone sex or online sex, is a form of bridging. But on the one hand this is less lucrative than "real contacts", on the other hand most of them lack the necessary equipment or the financial means to equip themselves accordingly.

Many of the sex workers have their center of life abroad and commute between their place of work and their place of residence. Due to border closings and travel restrictions, many of them were unable to return to their home country and were stuck at work.

As part of the second lockdown, companies and industries that are directly affected by the official closure receive a sales compensation. The November sales from the previous year will be replaced by up to 80 percent. Which sectors are directly affected is to be assessed according to the classification of economic activity (ÖNACE 2008). The facilities for practicing prostitution are explicitly excluded from this. Accordingly, brothels do not receive any sales compensation.

Recommendations for practicing sex work from July 1, 2020

Sex work was allowed again from July 1, 2020. Recommendations have been made in this regard by the Ministry of Social Affairs. The sex workers were also able to carry out a corona test in the course of the six-week official medical examinations, but this was not mandatory. With regard to hygiene measures, the focus was on the provision of disinfectants and the replacement of mattress covers after each customer visit. In addition, the sex workers should check the health of their customers and refrain from any sexual services if symptoms are present. It was also recommended to record the customer's contact details for the purpose of contact tracing.

Pushing back into illegality

The existential fears and the insecurity during the professional ban led to the illegal (= contrary to the professional ban) practicing sex work. Sex workers have to undergo medical examinations before starting work and every six weeks thereafter. Appropriate official photo identification will only be issued if you are free from syphilis, gonorrhea and AIDS. Those sex workers who have this certificate are considered registered. During the first lockdown, however, no investigations were carried out, which is why the control cards expired. As a result, even after the ban on the profession was lifted, the sex workers were (in part) not able to perform the job.

This circumstance can also lead to the fact that the activity is increasingly carried out illegally. According to Christian Knappik, spokesman for the “Sexworker Forum” (forum by sex workers for sex workers), this urges sex workers who want to work to continually exceed their own physical and psychological limits in order to somehow to get money. This makes sex workers easier to blackmail and exposes them to an increased health risk and the risk of violent attacks by customers.

In general, fears of existence, the loss of shelter and any pressure from relatives from their home country induce sex workers to do sex work despite being banned from working or having no ID. During the crisis, this does not take place on the street, but in spatially closed places, for example in brothels or private apartments. In contrast to illegal activities in the brothels, the control of private apartments is only possible to a limited extent.

No appointments for mandatory examinations

On July 1, 2020, the sex workers were officially allowed to resume their work. That was the theory, because many were unable to actually go back to work.

Since the mandatory examinations did not take place during the lockdown, all IDs have expired because the examination interval was exceeded. In order to be able to work legally again, the sexual service providers have to undergo a check-up.

There was a tight deadline at the various examination centers and health authorities, combined with very long waiting times. To make matters worse, there is a reduction in the number of normally possible appointments due to compliance with the Corona security regulations.

In Vienna alone there are 3,800 sex workers registered, which with a daily capacity of 60 examinations leads to waiting times of up to two months. After this long period of professional prohibition, the service providers are again not allowed to work until a new ID card is issued.

Corona hardship fund

The Corona hardship fund was created to compensate for the loss of income. The group of the “new self-employed” could also apply for funding, provided the applicants meet the necessary requirements. In practice, however, access to this assistance is difficult. The support from the Corona hardship fund took place in two phases. While the requirements in phase 1 were much stricter, the requirements were lowered with the start of phase 2 on April 20, 2020.

For support in phase 1, it was necessary to have an identification number from the company register or an Austrian tax number. In addition, the company had to be founded by December 31, 2019 and compulsory health insurance in accordance with the GSVG. Compulsory insurance exists for new self-employed people with an annual net income of € 5,527.92. If the income is lower, there is no compulsory insurance. Since many of the sex workers do not have compulsory insurance but are voluntarily insured, they were not entitled to support from the hardship fund in phase 1.

In phase 2 it is sufficient to provide a tax and social security number in Austria. In addition, a voluntary insurance in the statutory health insurance is now sufficient to be able to submit a corresponding application.

If the sex workers work independently, their income is taxable according to § 23 EStG. In this case, the tax office issues a separate tax number. However, it is often the case that sex service providers do not have their own tax number because brothel operators continue to levy flat-rate taxes despite the ban that has been in place since 2014.

In addition, the account number of an account in Austria must be given when applying for support from the hardship fund. However, many sex workers do not have an Austrian bank account, as around 95 percent of them are people with a migration background, with the majority coming from EU countries such as Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary. As a consequence, these sex workers usually have an account abroad.

However, the grant from the hardship fund often fails because many of the sex workers do not even register for fear of stigmatization and discrimination. As a result, they fall through any support network.

Conclusion

The group of sex workers is particularly hard hit by the effects of the Corona crisis. They struggle with unemployment and, as a result, with loss of income and homelessness. The topic of sex work hardly receives any attention in the public discussion, rather it is merely “included” in the COVID regulations and often takes place under adverse conditions - often also in illegality. No specific regulations have been made which would be necessary due to the special nature of this employment.

The situation of sex workers in the Corona crisis reflects the existing difficulties in this profession. Sex workers should be given the opportunity to participate in topics that are relevant to them. It is time to call the sex workers self-determined and self-employed Recognize the working group and take the appropriate legal measures to strengthen their position.