Many people have been hard-bit by the COVID-19 pandemic which shut down borders and ground economies to a halt. However, one suffering group that is hardly ever discussed in the open is sex workers – particularly, how they’ve been affected by the pandemic over the past year and a half and why they get into sex work in the first place.
Appealing to Singaporeans to listen to other stories which may not always be found on the internet, Project X executive director Vanessa Ho wondered, “Perhaps we are all tired now. Have we used up our compassion?”
Project X is a non-profit organisation in Singapore that provides social, emotional, and health services to people in the sex industry.
In a video on Facebook published by Chinese daily Lianhe Zaobao on Sunday (5 September), Ms Ho debunked the preconception that sex workers get into the industry “for fun” or because they want to earn lots of money to lavish goods.
“Most people actually do it for their families. They do it to support their children, parents and themselves,” she explained.
“It’s the same as all of us. It’s nothing out of the ordinary. We work so that we can treat our family members well.”
Noting that income derived from sex work is higher than from other jobs, Ms Ho recalled meeting a sex worker in her 50s who managed to send her son to university with the money she earned doing sex work.
The woman was the youngest of 10 siblings and didn’t get the opportunity to go to school, said Ms Ho, adding that she is completely illiterate.
“I think it is truly because of sex work that she is able to break the cycle of poverty,” she added.
However, the pandemic has dealt a great blow to the livelihood of sex workers with COVID-19 restrictions leading to a huge decrease in earnings.
One sex worker and advocate at Project X, Sherry Sherqueshaa said: “As a sex worker myself and on behalf of the sex worker community, I’m comfortable to say there’s a huge decrease in earnings from sex work.”
“Before this, pre-COVID, we were barely making it. But now most of us either leave the industry or we have to work extra hard to earn enough.”
Ms Ho noted that the circuit breaker period in 2020 left sex workers with no means of earning money. Many of them turned to Project X for help and advice to cover their rent. Others also worry about bearing the cost of caring for elderly family members with piling medical bills.
In efforts to help, Project X ran an emergency safety net fun last year which gave out a total of S$70,000 to 90 workers on 9 April 2020.
Some of these sex workers that received help include those who are on social visit passes but were unable to return home due to lack of flights or who were trapped due to entry restrictions.
Ms Ho sighed that the situation was starting to improve for sex workers this year until the sudden onset of the KTV cluster a couple of months ago.
In July, a spike in new local COVID-19 cases was linked to several KTV lounges across the city. The MOH identified a KTV hostess on a short-term visit pass as the “index case”. To date, 253 cases have been linked to the KTV cluster.
As news of the KTV cluster spread, discussions and debates pivoted towards the hostess, particularly on why she was working as hostess when she was on a short-term visit pass.
In the video, Ms Ho noted that she understands why Singaporean’s were upset by the news of the KTV cluster. However, she suggested that there are some questions Singaporeans may not have considered before regarding the circumstances that led to these women ending up in Singapore as sex workers.
“How did the girls come into Singapore? Who thought them how to work in Singapore? Who is their agent? Did their agent lie to them? Did the agent say anything to make them think that there was no other way to work in Singapore?” are questions that Singaporeans could be missing, said Ms Ho.
She added that sex workers who come from abroad may not even know that it is illegal for them to do sex work in Singapore.
Noting that some foreign sex workers end up in “truly tragic” situations, Ms Ho explained: “Some pay their agent up to a thousand dollars, some may even pay up to S$20,000.”
“A lot of their earnings actually go to the agent,” she said, adding that some of them may leave with just a few hundred dollars left.
Beyond that, these sex workers may not even know where or how to make a police report if they encounter a violent customer, while others may be prevented from making a report by their agents, leaving them feeling like they have no choice.
“I think such things shouldn’t be happening in Singapore. We have to protect everyone,” said Ms Ho.
The video ended with Ms Sherqueshaa asking for sex workers to be respected at the very least so as to ensure that they receive the services and help that they need.
She said: “I’m not asking for immediate acceptance of sex workers to be part of your community, but the least we all could do is respect them.”
“Because when we do, then we won’t bring down or ignore the challenges they are facing right now and we won’t hold back from rendering services or assistance to them.”