The sex work network we have been building is saving us during COVID-19

I’m a sex worker in Argentina. I can’t work and I have no support from the government, but our grassroots network is helping us survive. #HumansofCOVID19 Español

29 June 2020, 6.42am
Members of the national sex worker network, Ammar Cordoba, preparing food packs.

My name is Graciela, I’m 54 years old, and I live in the city of Paraná in Argentina. I’ve been a sex worker all my life. I started at the age of 23 to help my family through a tough economic situation. I was able not only to help my family, but also to pay for a nanny, be my own boss and choose my own working hours. I then decided this is what I want to do for a living.

Although I have worked all my life, I cannot get a pension or social security. That’s unfair.

Today we’re in the middle of a global pandemic and more than ever before I feel how precarious and vulnerable our living conditions are. Argentina went into compulsory lockdown on 20 March because of COVID-19. This has transformed my life completely. I cannot work at all.

I and my four kids and two grandchildren are in extreme need, and it seems that our lives do not matter. All of us are informal workers and usually get paid under the table, so now we have no income.

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My job as a sex worker brings in half the family’s income. We don’t even have the basics these days. We can’t buy food.

I have never worked in brothels. I’ve always preferred working on the street, mainly because there we are in a community and we have basic codes of mutual care and respect.

I’ve lost all contact with my clients. I know some sex workers who have started doing online sex work, but I have no internet on my phone. I call some clients but I have no way of getting payments, as I don’t have a bank account. So it’s impossible for me to have virtual sex and to charge for it.

Sex work has existed since the beginning of time, but we have no rights or recognition

What scares me the most is the uncertainty – how long is this going to take? Nobody knows.

The state has always used minor offences an an excuse to lock us up, to abuse and rape us and fill their corrupted pockets with our money. We suffer continuous violence and the police look away.

Sex work has existed since the beginning of time, but we have no rights or recognition. The government has given economic support to informal and independent workers, but sex workers got nothing.

We have to run so many risks, but we have no social benefits, safety or state protection. We cannot register at the Ministry of Labour, we cannot pay taxes and we cannot pay for social security because, to the government, our profession does not exist.

This non-recognition means life is very precarious. Now we realise how important our health is. As sex workers we have no choice: we have to go to a public hospital with no proper resources, and as soon as they know what we do for a living we suffer stigma, mistreatment and violence. Mistreatment is worse for a woman my age.

These days, sex workers are surviving thanks to communal food banks. We are continually searching for food and donations. Daily survival is extremely difficult.

‘Sex workers’ lives also matter’

What is saving us is our support network. Two years ago, we started a national sex worker network with Ammar Cordoba, together with colleagues in Rosario, Chaco and Neuquén.

During the pandemic, we are using the Internet to connect with colleagues in other parts of Argentina, as well as Brazil and Chile.

This is a big challenge. But this network has saved us during the lockdown. We have organised fundraising campaigns to get food and economic support. Ammar Cordoba started a campaign called: “Sex workers’ lives also matter”.

The donations were divided among the network, to buy food and toiletries for sex workers. We also collected money to support more than 300 sex workers’ families throughout the county and to help fifteen grassroots organisations.

We need to carry on with grassroots strategies. We need to claim our labour rights and demand real access to justice.

Thanks to the network, I have learnt that my work is not illegal, that I have rights and that there are laws against police violence. I have learnt how to defend myself and avoid sexual exploitation.

Most of all, I have learnt that I am part of society.

[As told to Marisa Fassi]

Argentina went into mandatory lockdown on 20 March. Restrictions have now been lifted in many areas, but the lockdown was extended until the end of June in Buenos Aires. The government announced various social measures to mitigate the effects of the pandemic, including one-off emergency payments to pensioners, informal workers and low-income workers. It also increased assistance to food banks and imposed price ceilings on essential food and toiletries. Layoffs were prohibited for 60 days starting from 31 March. The government also announced that it will provide relief to small and medium companies to the value of US$5 billion, including helping them to pay staff salaries.

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