Canada must protect the rights of sex workers during COVID-19 by ensuring access to emergency income supports

22 May 2020
May 22, 2020

Minister Maryam Monsef
Minister for Women and Gender Equality and Rural Economic Development
22 rue Eddy
Gatineau, QC J8X 2V6

RE: Emergency income supports for sex workers urgently needed

Dear Minister Monsef,

Thank you for your steadfast commitment to women’s rights and gender equality, including your prompt action to mobilize funding to address the gendered impacts of the pandemic. We write at this time to urge that—further to your mandate to ensure that GBA+ is conducted of all government decisions—you ensure that sex workers and other women and gender diverse people working in informal economies and criminalized contexts, are not left out of the COVID-19 response.

Sex workers are one of the most marginalized groups in Canada. Since the start of the pandemic, many sex workers have stopped direct-contact sex work to comply with social distancing guidelines. Others are out of work with the closure of strip clubs and massage parlours. Some sex workers—including those most marginalized—are not able to stop working and face an increased risk of surveillance. Most sex workers abruptly lost all their income, but because of the precarious and criminalized nature of their work, many sex workers do not qualify for CERB or other emergency income supports.

Internationally, UNAIDS released a public statement on April 8, 2020, highlighting the concern that “as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, sex workers all over the world are experiencing hardship, a total loss of income and increased discrimination and harassment.” The statement noted that “when they are excluded from COVID-19 social protection responses, sex workers are faced with putting their safety, their health and their lives at increased risk just to survive.” UNAIDS “calls on all countries to take immediate, critical action, grounded in human rights principles, to protect the health and rights of sex workers” such as by ensuring “access to national social protection schemes for sex workers, including income support schemes.”

Faced with this situation, many sex workers’ organizations across Canada have conducted community fundraisers, in most cases providing $100 stipends to sex workers. But $100 is insufficient for sex workers to cover the cost of housing, food, and other essential for their families.

Sex workers are stigmatized and targeted by the public, law enforcement and government, and many workers legitimately fear discrimination and avoid contact with government and social services. More marginalized workers may not have bank accounts. The criminalization of sex work is a direct barrier for sex workers who cannot and do not want to risk interacting with government agencies. This means that any government efforts to include these marginalized communities in emergency income supports must rely on civil society organizations with strong community connections who are best placed to receive funds and directly channel them to those who need them, and can provide anonymity and safety.

The Prime Minister said that “Only by protecting each other can we protect ourselves.” To protect each other, and to ensure that human rights are at the centre of Canada’s pandemic response, the federal government’s pandemic response must recognize the vulnerabilities of particular communities and be non-discriminatory. Canada must guarantee equal access to income supports for sex workers.

Minister Monsef, we call on you to take action to comply with UNAIDS’ urgent recommendations. As immediate first steps that should include:

Urgently allocating funding to civil society organizations working directly with sex workers, with flexible granting mechanisms allowing organizations to transmit funds using pre-paid debit cards and other low-barrier methods to the communities they serve; and

Meeting with sex workers’ rights organizations to discuss their concerns and jointly develop response strategies.

We very much welcomed your Ministry’s swift action in transferring funds to Women’s Shelters Canada, empowering that organization to direct funds directly to women’s shelters across the country. We are asking you to do the same to ensure that some of the most marginalized women and gender diverse people are afforded the same access to emergency income supports as other people out of work across Canada.

We hope to hear back from you soon. The Canadian Alliance for Sex Work Law Reform, an alliance of 26 sex worker rights groups across Canada—the majority of which are run by and for people who sell or trade sex—is available to virtually meeting with you at your earliest convenience to further discuss this matter. For more information and to schedule a meeting please email Jenn Clamen, National Coordinator, at We plan to release this Open Letter publicly on May 30, and look forward to being able to include updated information about the government’s response to these concerns by that time.

Thank you very much for your urgent attention to this pressing human rights issue. We look forward to hearing further from you and your officials.


Signed by

  • Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights
  • Amnesty International Canada (English)
  • Amnistie internationale Canada francophone
  • BC Civil Liberties Association
  • Canadian Alliance for Sex Work Law Reform
  • Canada Without Poverty
  • Canadian Labour Congress
  • Canadian Civil Liberties Association
  • DisAbled Women’s Network of Canada
  • Egale Canada
  • Fédération des femmes du Québec
  • International Women’s Rights Project
  • Inter Pares
  • Oxfam Canada
  • National Association of Women and the Law
  • Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants (OCASI)
  • Social Planning Council of Winnipeg
  • West Coast LEAF
  • Women’s Legal Education & Action Fund (LEAF)
  • Women’s Shelters Canada
  • YWCA Canada

Endorsed by

  • Action LGBTQ avec immigrants et réfugié(e)s
  • Action Santé Travesties et Transexuel(le)s du Québec
  • Affirm United
  • AIDS Committee Newfoundland and Labrador
  • Alliance for South Asian AIDS Prevention
  • AlterHéros
  • ArQuives : Canada’s Queer Archives
  • AVI
  • Barbra Schlifer Commemorative Clinic
  • Best Practices Policy Project
  • Butterfly Asian and Migrant Sex Workers Support Network
  • Canadian AIDS Society
  • Canadian Positive People Network
  • Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network
  • Caregivers’ Action Centre
  • Centre Associatif Polyvalent d’Aide Hépatite C
  • Centre for Gender Advocacy
  • Centre for Gender and Sexual Health Equity
  • Chinese and Southeast Asian Legal Clinic
  • Chinese Canadian National Council Toronto Chapter
  • Church of the Holy Trinity Toronto
  • Clinique Droits Devant
  • Coalition des organismes communautaires québécois de lutte contre le sida
  • Community Against Sexworker Stigma Edmonton
  • Conseil Québécois LGBT
  • Downtown Eastside Sex Workers United Against Violence
  • ÉGIDES – l’Alliance internationale francophone pour l’égalité et les diversités
  • Émissaire
  • Enchanté Network
  • Ending Violence Association of Canada
  • Equality Fund
  • Equitas
  • Fédération des maisons d’hébergement pour femmes
  • Femmes Autochtones du Québec inc.
  • Gender Studies and Feminist Research Program Executive Committee, McMaster University
  • Global Network of Sex Work Projects
  • Good for Her
  • Grenfell Ministries
  • Health Providers Against Poverty
  • Helping Hands Street Mission
  • HIV Community Link Shift Program
  • Huronia Transition Homes
  • Hustle Heal Motivate
  • Income Security Advocacy Centre
  • Interagency Coalition on AIDS and Development
  • Iskweu – Montreal Native Women’s Shelter
  • Kiwassa Neighbourhood House
  • Law Union of British Columbia
  • Living in Community
  • Maggie’s Indigenous Sex Workers Drum Group
  • Maggie’s Toronto Sex Workers Action Project
  • Men’s Therapy Centre
  • Migrant Sex Workers Project
  • Mission Inclusion
  • Nellie’s
  • Niagara Poverty Reduction Network
  • Observatoire des profilages
  • OHIP for All
  • Oxfam-Québec
  • Pacific AIDS Network
  • Pivot Legal Society
  • Planned Parenthood Toronto
  • Plein Milieu
  • Portail VIH/sida du Québec
  • Positive Living Niagara
  • Poverty Kills 2020
  • POWER (Prostitutes of Ottawa-Gatineau Work Educate Resist)
  • Projet d’intervention auprès des mineur.e.s prostitué.e.s
  • Projet Lune
  • Prostitutes Involved Empowered Cogent Edmonton
  • Providing Advocacy, Counselling and Education (PACE) Society
  • Rainbow Faith and Freedom
  • Rainbow Refuge
  • Rainbow Resource Centre
  • Rézo, projet travailleurs du sexe
  • Rights of Non-Status Women Network
  • Safe Harbour Outreach Project
  • Safe Space
  • Sexual Assault Centre (Hamilton and Area)
  • Sex Professionals of Canada
  • Sex Workers Advisory Network of Sudbury
  • Sex Worker Alliance of Niagara
  • Sex Workers Allies and Friends Edmonton
  • Sex Workers of Winnipeg Action Coalition
  • Sher Vancouver LGBTQ Friends Society
  • SheVibe
  • SHORE Centre
  • Showing up for Racial Justice Toronto
  • Simone de Beauvoir Institute, Concordia University
  • Sisters Trust Canada
  • Skipping Stone Foundation
  • Solidarité sans frontiers
  • SOLID Outreach Society
  • South Asian Legal Clinic of Ontario
  • South Asian Women’s Community Centre
  • Speqtrum Hamilton
  • Stella, l’amie de Maimie
  • Supporting Women’s Alternatives Network
  • SWAN Waterloo Region
  • SWAP Hamilton
  • Table des Organismes communautaires Montréalais de lutte contre le sida
  • Toronto Rape Crisis Centre Multicultural Women Against Rape
  • Union of BC Indian Chiefs
  • West Coast Cooperative of Sex Industry Professionals

CC:      Minister Chagger Bardish, Minister of Diversity and Inclusion; Minister Carla Qualtrough, Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Disability Inclusion; Minister Patty Hajdu, Minister of Health; and Minister David Lametti, Minister of Justice; Minister Ahmed Hussen, Minister of Families, Children and Social Development

about NAWL
The National Association of Women and the Law is a not-for-profit feminist organization that promotes the equality rights of women through legal education, research and law reform advocacy.
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