Sex workers urge Ramaphosa to include them in employee relief scheme_1

The Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce (Sweat) and the National Movement of Sex Workers (Sisonke) have called on President Cyril Ramaphosa to make sure the Temporary Employer and Employee Relief Scheme (TERS) includes sex workers during lockdown. 

In a statement, released on Wednesday 25 March, the group said: “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’.

“We call on the president to make urgent provision to the Temporary Employer and Employee Relief Scheme to include sex workers because sex work is work and they too need help as their livelihood has been disrupted,” said Sweat. 

Ramaphosa announced that a nationwide lockdown would be implemented from midnight on Thursday for a period of 21 days. 

Sex workers claim they are excluded by Ramaphosa 

The president has said that there is a proposal for a special dispensation for companies that are in distress due to the coronavirus pandemic. Through the proposal, employees will receive wage payment through TERS, which will enable companies to pay employees directly during this period and avoid retrenchment.   

The group, on the other hand, are questioning the inclusivity of the proposal. 

“Will it include sex workers? Sex work is currently criminalised in South Africa and sex workers are considered criminals — not workers. And as the hardest-hit group of workers by the global pandemic, they will most likely not qualify for the Temporary Employer and Employee Relief Scheme,” it said.  

According to the statement, sex workers working in brothels, strip clubs or operating on street corners are unable to register themselves for Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF) payments due to criminalisation, stigma and discrimination and therefore, in emergency situations such as these, they cannot claim for any financial aid from the government during times when they cannot work. 

“Since the [coronavirus] 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,” it said. 

Calls for decriminalisation 

Sweat said Ramaphosa should heed the call for the decriminalisation of sex work as it excludes them from accessing basic human and labour rights. 

“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,” it added. 

Sex workers who find themselves in difficulties during this time, can call Sweat on its 24-hour helpline at 0800 606060 or send a “please call me” to 071 357 7632.

Sweat and Sisonke will also be starting a Go-Fund-Me page to assist during the coronavirus pandemic and lockdown.