Earlier this year the Victorian State Government launched an inquiry into its response to the COVID-19 pandemic. One thing was clear from the outset, in some areas the response has been adequate yet in others it has left much to be desired. One area where the response has been lacking is that of sex work, which has long since existed within a grey area of legislation.

Of particular concern during this unprecedented pandemic is a severe lack of communication from the government and a lack of access to government benefits for the individuals employed in the sex work industry.

“[The] government needs to understand that the difference between sex workers and other gig economy workers is that sex workers are subject to powerful legal and social factors that prevent them claiming the benefits which enable people to survive during lockdown. Decriminalisation cannot come soon enough now that COVID has given us this lesson in the threat economic and social exclusion poses to public health,” explained Cheryl Overs, a Research Fellow from the Michael Kirby Centre for Public Health and Human Rights at Monash University. “Decriminalisation means sex workers will be covered by equal opportunity law. That won’t automatically wipe away the stigma that prevents sex workers claiming the benefits they need to get through COVID or another crisis, but it will remove an important structural barrier which is the first step.”

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 In March of this year, led by MP Fiona Patten, the state government finally announced an inquiry into the decimalisation of sex work in Victoria, a move which sparked optimism among many within the sex work industry. However, as Sex Work Law Reform Victoria (SWLRV) spokesperson Roger Sorrenti explained the current pandemic had major implications on this process.

“The impression that I get is that the government has been overwhelmed and that a lot of resources have been focused on dealing with the pandemic rather than on other issues. It’s understandable that the government may be less focused on the review now than it otherwise would have been.”

SWLRV is an independent non-partisan volunteer group led by sex workers, lobbying for the full decriminalisation of consensual adult sex work and was one of a number of individuals and organisations which made a submission to the current inquiry.

“There were a number of sex worker groups that had contacted Victoria Police, Consumer Affairs Victoria and the DHHS [Department Of Health & Human Services] seeking clarification and there was a mixed response. Sometimes there were prompt replies and communication, yet at other times we didn’t hear back at all.

“What our submission focused on was the lack of communication. The biggest issue here is not necessarily the directions themselves but the fact that those directions have not been communicated in an effective way to the sex industry.”

“Prior to coronavirus the licensing system for sex work in Victoria was in a large part enforced and regulated by the police. Sex workers already were wary of police prior to the pandemic because of their role in enforcing these outdated sex workers laws.”

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 However novel the current situation is, it does not for a second negate the state government’s failings in properly engaging with the industry over the past five months. Yet these issues may not be new as Sorrenti explained.

“The pandemic has exposed, highlighted and exacerbated existing problems that were there prior to the virus. The lack of communication, the lack of dialogue between sex workers and the government departments during the pandemic has definitely exposed that problem.

“Under the Sex Work Act, the government is supposed to appoint a sex work ministerial advisory committee, that was shut down in 2014, and it has not met since. That was one mechanism for sex industry representatives to meet with the minister issues that are occurring.”

The information relating to Sex Work and COVID-19 has left many in the dark, not only the sex workers themselves but their clients also. The heavy quagmire of COVID-19 legislation in this area has not only not been applied evenly across the state but the language in which it has been communicated is not easily deciphered.

In fact, between March and July 20, 2020, it was not at all clear who had the responsibility of publicly clarifying the status of the various sex industry sectors under government directions.

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 Star Observer recently published an article which raised concerns around the increased powers granted to police under Victoria’s State of Disaster, to this point, Sorrenti concluded the conversation by saying;

“The increase in police powers is a cause of concern for a lot of human rights activists, and in a lot of marginalised communities, not just the sex worker community. There are legitimate concerns from sex workers about the increase in police powers given that the police already had a role enforcing sex worker laws in this state that have been overwhelmingly opposed.”

UPDATE

The Business Licensing Authority (BLA) has received the following information today from DHHS regarding the current COVID-19 related restrictions.

  • Workplaces in metropolitan Melbourne can only operate if they are listed as a permitted work premises. Because sex work, brothels and sex on premises are not listed under these restrictions, these services cannot operate in metropolitan Melbourne. This includes offering sex work services at a client’s home or at any other location. Aligning with these requirements, under these strict Stage 4 restrictions, Victorians cannot leave their home for work unless they are a permitted worker, which limits the way these types of services can be offered.
  • Across the rest of Victoria, Victoria’s COVID-19 restrictions prohibit brothels and sex on premises venues from operating but lawful sex work remains regulated more generally under the normal regulatory framework (e.g. by Consumer Affairs Victoria and Victoria Police). Under these Stage 3 restrictions, Victorians who ordinarily reside outside of metropolitan Melbourne can leave home to go to work and also perform work at another person’s premises.

The BLA will continue to distribute information it receives from DHHS to the sex work industry stakeholders as the information becomes available. However, any COVID-19 related queries you have should be sent directly to DHHS.

Further information about the restrictions can be found at:

www.dhhs.vic.gov.au/victorias-restriction-levels-covid-19

www.dhhs.vic.gov.au/shopping-and-retail-restrictions-covid-19

The DHHS can be also be contacted on 1300 650 172.

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