Scarlet News:

Policing is not a public health strategy: Emergency funds for sex workers needed

Mar 26, 2020 | Media release, News

Joint Statement from Scarlet Alliance, Australian Sex Workers Association; Respect Inc, QLD; SIN, SA; SWEAR, WA; SWOP ACT; SWOP NT; SWOP NSW; VIXEN Collective, VIC:- Scarlet Alliance, the peak body representing sex workers and sex worker organisations in Australia, stand with our state and territory member organisations in our condemnation of the use of police powers and fines on individual sex workers, as has occurred in NSW last night. Criminalisation is not an acceptable or productive strategy in stopping the spread of COVID-19; in fact it is counter-productive. This is an unacceptable strategy particularly in the absence of income support for sex workers.

Police targeting and fining of individual sex workers who are already vulnerable after significant loss of income serves only to increase our financial need. This does nothing to promote the public health measures that are currently in place, and instead serves to punish those who have already been left behind by Federal income relief measures. Re-criminalising sex workers in the name of COVID-19 leaves these sex workers in the very difficult position of having to balance potential criminality and fines against the prospect of no income and no access to financial relief.

SWOP NSW CEO Cameron Cox says, “Sex workers are already aware of the importance of social distancing and other necessary measures to prevent COVID-19 transmission but we cannot be placed in a position where we have to choose between being fined and criminalised or having our families and ourselves be homeless and hungry.”

Sex workers themselves are the industry’s key stakeholders and the experts in their own field which is sex work. Sex workers understand the risks of COVID-19 transmission and the need for social distancing. Many sex workers have moved to non-contact forms of sex work and are staying up to date with information about preventing transmission.

It is clear that sex workers are able to adapt, and this has been continually demonstrated in the sustained low rates of HIV and STIs among sex workers across each of the jurisdictions in Australia. The partnership approach between communities and government has been critical to the successful public health response to blood borne viruses and STIs in Australia.

“It would be advantageous to the control of COVID-19 if the government was willing to work in partnership with sex worker organisations, rather than to implement criminalistion and penalties” states Scarlet Alliance CEO Jules Kim. “Scarlet Alliance and our member organisations are trusted community health organisations that have a long track record of delivering on health promotion within and for our communities.”

Criminalisation is an ill-informed measure in a public health concern. There is substantial evidence that clear and well-communicated public health messaging, community engagement and peer education are the best ways to change behaviour at a community level. UNAIDS recently released a call to take a human-rights approach to the COVID-19 pandemic, building on knowledge from the global response to HIV/AIDS and explicitly recommended against criminalisation approaches to COVID-19. We know that criminalisation does not deliver intended health outcomes and in fact creates barriers to effective health promotion.

Acting President of Scarlet Alliance Gala Vanting states: “In direct contradiction to the evidence and what we know from previous public health responses, the government has taken a backward approach in adopting criminalisation responses to this pandemic. We take the reliance on policing as evidence of a weak early-stage prevention phase on the part of government, and a failure to coordinate a strong response that engages the whole of the Australian community.”

Darryl O’Donnell, CEO of The Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations affirms the call for support. He said:“Sex workers take public health extremely seriously and have been at the forefront of efforts to slow and prevent the spread of conditions such as HIV, hepatitis C and other STIs. It’s time for government to now support them through this very difficult period by providing robust income support in a time of crisis."

Scarlet Alliance and our member organisations call for all workers currently residing in Australia, including sex workers, to receive at least the equivalent wage subsidy available to Centrelink-eligible workers. Additionally, we call on the government to provide crisis funding to Scarlet Alliance as the national peak organisation to work with our member organisations in the states and territories to distribute emergency relief funding to precarious workers. This would provide a solid foundation for the public health messages and support all workers to stay at home.The decision to further criminalise and penalise a community for whom our formal calls for support and consultation have gone unanswered by the Federal Government must be reconsidered and we must end the criminalisation and fining of sex workers. We call on other state and territory governments to take notice of the pitfalls of such an ineffective strategy as was used in New South Wales, and to take a more informed and human rights-focused approach.


Jules Kim, CEO Scarlet Alliance, Australian Sex Workers Association0411 985 135