Sex workers falling through the cracks of COVID-19 response, says Hamilton advocate

A Hamilton advocacy group has set up an emergency fund to help sex workers who can't work during the COVID-19 pandemic, but don't quality for federal income relief.

Jelena Vermilion, a local activist and sex worker, says most don't qualify for emergency money

Many sex workers don't qualify for the federal government's emergency response benefit, says Jelena Vermilion of SWAP Hamilton. And physical distancing has left them without income. (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

A Hamilton advocacy group has set up an emergency fund to help sex workers who can't work during the COVID-19 pandemic, but don't qualify for federal income relief.

The Sex Workers' Action Program Hamilton (SWAP) has handed out $100 to 20 street-based sex workers so far, says executive director Jelena Vermilion. But the need is great, she said, and the money doesn't go very far. 

She's calling on the federal government to provide some sort of financial relief for sex workers who don't qualify for the $2,000-a-month emergency response benefit. Many sex workers are criminalized, work on the streets, and can't prove $5,000 in employment income in 2019.

"My intention in contacting you today is to make you aware of this pressing need, and to implore all of you to speak explicitly and to motion in favour of providing financial relief to sex workers and marginalized women," she wrote in a letter to MPs, MPPs and other decision makers.

"In British Columbia, sex workers are explicitly included in their provincial government's $500-per-month rent relief, and their one-time $1,000 payment. Hamilton can do much better."

"The criminalization of sex work is such that [sex workers are] not considered," says Jelena Vermilion. (Submitted by Jelena Vermilion)

What attention this letter will get remains to be seen. Matthew Green, NDP MP for Hamilton Centre, read it and supports what Vermilion is saying.

"It's important for Canadians to note that sex work is work," he said. "It's part of an informal economy here. It would also fall under the public health requirements of physical distancing."

Inquiries to the federal ministry of finance were referred to Employment and Social Development Canada, which hasn't yet responded about possible plans for reaching sex workers. 

Paul Johnson, director of the city's emergency operations centre, says there is emergency money available through the Ontario Works program, which can help for 48 days, or longer if needed. Staff can help people who've never received social assistance navigate the application process. 

"For individuals who don't have income, and who may not be able to access some other programs, through Ontario Works, there is the ability for emergency assistance that kicks in almost immediately," he said Thursday. 

Sex work is uniquely impacted by the global pandemic, said Vermilion, who is also a sex worker. Much of it relies on physical contact, which is a health and safety risk right now. Sex workers are also commonly from equity-seeking populations, including people who are racialized, migrants or transgender.

Webcam appearances aren't 'working from home'

Some sex workers have turned to webcam work, or "camming," she said, but that's harder than it seems. It relies on having a private space, a consistent home and an internet connection, not to mention building an audience at a time when thousands of others have the same idea. It also comes with privacy concerns, even behind password-protected areas.

"Camming is not the sex work equivalent to 'working from home,'" she said. 

Vermilion fears that without a solution, Hamilton sex workers will take to the streets anyway, putting themselves at risk of COVID-19 and being targeted by police enforcing physical distancing rules.

So she's doing the only thing she can right now. She's writing letters and fundraising.

"Sex workers are our neighbours, our friends, and our peers," she said. "They are every one of us."


Samantha Craggs is journalist based in Windsor, Ont. She is executive producer of CBC Windsor and previously worked as a reporter and producer in Hamilton, specializing in politics and city hall. Follow her on Twitter at @SamCraggsCBC, or email her at samantha.craggs@cbc.ca