“Those who are undocumented migrant sex workers, they even fear to go out. There is a lot of police control under the lockdown. If they are stopped by the police, they will be probably deported.”
Vera, OTRAS, Spain
“The housing situation prior to COVID-19 was already awful for sex workers. The rents are terribly high in big cities like Barcelona, like in any other gentrified European cities. Many sex workers live at their workplaces, which were shut down, so basically sex workers found themselves on the street.”
Sabrina Sanchez, Aprosex, OTRAS, Spain
The sex worker community
Spain has a population of around 48 million people and is amongst the European countries hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic so far: by mid-April, the death toll almost reached 20.000. The country’s sex worker population is estimated to be around 100.000 workers, of which 80 % are migrant women mainly from Latin America, Central and Eastern Europe and Africa. A large proportion of migrant sex workers are undocumented, although there is no official statistics available.
In Spain, sex work is not addressed by any specific law, but a number of activities related to it, such as pimping, are illegal. Brothels (often referred to as ‘clubs’) are widespread across the country and usually are situated outside of big cities. The past decade has seen municipalities cracking down on sex work, which mainly affected street-based sex workers. Some towns and cities use a 2015 citizens’ safety law, commonly known as the “gag law,” to fine women thousands of euros for selling sex in public areas. Other cities, such as Barcelona have passed their own citizens’ safety laws. Currently, soliciting on the street is prohibited in Malaga, Sevilla, Madrid, Bilbao, Murcia and Valencia.
Migrant sex workers, especially those undocumented have been specifically targeted by municipal by-laws and their enforcement accompanied by police and immigration raids. These actions are often framed as anti-trafficking interventions or operations aimed at identifying clients, however, they operate with i.d. and residence permit checks and the majority of fined are women selling sex. In Murcia for instance – where the average fine is 375 EUR but can increase to 3000 EUR in case someone is soliciting close to an educational institution or church – 72% of fines were received by sex workers and not their clients according to a report.
Impact of COVID-19 on the community
Sex workers report complete or nearly complete loss of income. The number of active advertisers on one of the main advertising site dropped by 32 % since the national lockdown was introduced.
Although there is a moratorium on evictions, many sex workers struggle to maintain their housing due to brothel shut downs and lack of rental contracts. It has been reported by some sex workers that they are spending the quarantine with clients at their homes for a reduced price or for free in the absence of other accommodation options. Sex worker rights activist observe that this trend can lead to exploitative and abusive situation for the most vulnerable.
Given that selling sexual services is not legally regulated in any laws, only a minority of sex workers pay taxes and social contributions as self-employed. The minimum sum of monthly contribution is 283,3 EUR, which is non-accessible for many precarious sex workers. During the COVID-19 crisis, sex workers theoretically can receive unemployment benefits if they are able to prove a 75% decrease of their income. Despite the fact the quarantine was introduced on the 14th of March, the monthly contribution for March was charged from the bank accounts of self-employed and VAT needed to be paid as well.
So far, Spain has not taken systemic measures to regularise undocumented migrants during the crisis. Thus, undocumented sex workers are afraid to leave their residence as massive police controls might contribute to their detection and possible detention and deportation at later dates.
Until mid-April, the government of the Balearic Island was the only province explicitly rolling out measures to support sex workers. It included sex workers as beneficiaries of the basic social income of 560 EUR. For that, sex workers must have their address registered in the Balears, have no other income and be known by social services or NGOs. As only few sex workers can afford registration in this tourist destination and given the seasonal nature of sex work there, activists suppose that the measure is only beneficial for a very small segment of sex workers.
Attacks from abolitionist feminists have impeded sex worker organising during COVID-19. For instance, when the first sex worker fundraiser was launched online, a systemic reporting of the social media posts as spam occured, which caused delays in collecting contributions. Some abolitionist groups even celebrated the virus as it has caused a huge decline in demand for sexual services and prevented sex workers from working. When collecting information from sex workers who approached abolitionist service providers, many reported that they were referred to social services and churches for support, without further assistance.
Actions on the ground
Sex worker rights groups were quick to mobilise to attend the immediate needs of the community. On 17th of March, various sex workers organisations and allies launched a GoFundMe campaign to support the most vulnerable sex workers by emergency cash payments. Service providers are distributing food and basic products for the most in need, also referring them to job offers in agriculture, as there is the lack of migrant workers due to the borders locked down.
Support the local sex worker community!
You can find the Spanish fundraiser clicking on the picture:
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