Sex work is decriminalised in NZ and the wage subsidy is available, but claiming it means officially registering with the tax department, something many sex workers do not feel safe to do. 

A few days after lockdown hit, 21-year-old Riley, from Auckland, got on the phone to IRD to ask about the wage subsidy. As a full-service sex worker, she was previously working three or four eight-hour shifts a week, earning around $600.

“The lady on the phone asked me, ‘What is your business?’ And I froze for a second. In that moment, I was like, ‘Oh god’.”

“You have to either lie and say you're an entertainer or something like that on your tax return. Or say you’re a sex worker, which is then on your record, which is pretty scary.”

Full-service sex workers legally can’t work at Covid alert levels 3 or 4. It’s not until level 2 they can return to work, and even then, fears of the virus mean bookings are very low until level 1.

Because sex work is decriminalised in New Zealand, the wage subsidy is available, but claiming it means having your real name and occupation registered with Inland Revenue, something many sex workers do not feel safe to do.

The term ‘sex work’ encompasses a broad spectrum of jobs, from stripping to OnlyFans to porn. Full service is the term for “actual penetrative in-person sex with clients”, as Riley puts it.

Facing zero dollars of income for the foreseeable future, Riley declared herself as a sex worker and applied for the subsidy. “It's a bit scary. I think I'm anxious for what that could mean. It does worry me that people can find it and that will be used against me in the future.”

The fear of outing yourself as a sex worker to the government

Jess is in her late 20s and lives in Auckland. Full-service sex work has been her main income source for “probably most of my adult life”, she says. But she’s too scared to apply for the wage subsidy, because she doesn’t want to formally declare herself as a sex worker.

“Just because it's legal doesn't mean that there's no stigma, and that it won't be brought up against you in more roundabout ways. And that makes me very reluctant to fill out any kind of process that would mean permanently connecting my legal identity to the fact that I'm a sex worker, especially if it’s with a government agency.”

“You never know how it's going to come up and bite you in the ass.”

She says a friend of hers had the fact she was a sex worker used against her in custody hearings. “There was records of that [her being a sex worker] from official channels that she couldn't really dispute.”

“Despite the fact that sex work is a legal choice of income in Aotearoa, that was brought up as supporting evidence for her being mentally unwell and having substance use issues in court. And she lost custody of her child to an ex partner who was a gang member with multiple drug and violence related convictions.”

Jess herself has also experienced stigma from a healthcare practitioner after they found out she was a sex worker.

She needed a cervical biopsy and had requested specific pain relief and sedation. The gynecologist who was treating her saw on her medical records she was a sex worker, and “he very much had an attitude of ‘Oh, you’re used to shoving stuff up there, why is this a problem for you?’”

She says he didn’t comply with the agreed-upon pain management plan, “and then wrote a letter to my GP that outed me as a sex worker saying that he had concerns about my ability to stick to the post-procedure instructions on how to care for myself, when the only instructions were to not have sex and not use tampons.”

This experience has made her extremely wary of any government agency knowing she is a sex worker.

What’s the situation with the wage subsidy?

To get the Covid wage subsidy, you don’t strictly need to declare what your occupation is.

But you do need to have been registered with Inland Revenue and declaring your income and paying taxes to them.

“We expect anyone seeking a wage subsidy to be declaring their income to Inland Revenue,” says Jason Dwen, the general manager of centralised services at the Ministry of Social Development. “Doing so makes it possible to verify their status as self-employed.”

The Ministry of Social Development (MSD) does not generally ask self-employed people to specify their occupation when they apply for a wage subsidy, he says.

But you do need to give information like your personal IRD number and IRD customer name.

And before MSD will pay you the wage subsidy, they will match the information you gave them with information that Inland Revenue has on you.

For those worried about their name showing up on the publicly-searchable database of employers who have been granted the wage subsidy, Jason says you don’t need to worry.

“We’d like to reassure anyone who is a self-employed sex worker that their name will not be published online if they apply for the wage subsidy.”

That’s because no one who is a sole trader (a.k.a self-employed) has their name published online in the wage subsidy register. Only businesses with more than three employees have their names publicly published.

So basically, sex workers don’t need to directly declare to MSD what their job is to get the wage subsidy. They also won’t have their name published online. 

But they do need to be working on the books and be registered and paying tax to IRD. And in order to be doing this legally, that means declaring themselves as a sex worker to IRD.

Even when you’re on the books, it’s hard to have proof of income

23-year-old Rachel from Wellington is “very on the books and very honest about what I do,” and has applied for the wage subsidy. 

But despite being open with the government that she’s a sex worker, it’s been difficult to prove her income.

She’s an independent full-service sex worker, meaning she doesn’t work for an agency or brothel and organises all of her own bookings personally. “So I have no proof of my income, zero,” she says. 

“Some agencies I've worked at will give you payslips, and that proves that you're getting that income. For me, I run my own business, I am my own business, my body is literally my business. I never thought to give myself a tax invoice or a receipt for my work, you know? I just put my money in my wallet, write it down in my little notebook and go on.”

Many sex workers are not registered with IRD

A lot of workers don't declare their income, which means they can't get any kind of government help, says Riley. Or they lie and say they work in other industries.

“A lot of people do put down ‘entertainer’. Like I think most of my friends who are strippers will do, or they just say ‘dancer’, things like that.”

In the past, Jess did work on the books, paying tax and declaring her income. But she never used any of the sex industry specific codes, instead paying tax as an entertainer or a model. “I didn't want to out myself,” she says. 

But recently, chronic health conditions stopped her from working full time. She’s been on the benefit with a medical exemption from seeking work, and doing sex work under the table because, she says, “the benefit levels that I am being paid are not enough for me to live on with additional expenses that my health condition incurs”.

“If there are other things that I can do to make money, whether that's the benefit or whether that's borrowing money from family, or whatever, I would choose that any day over having a government record of the fact that I've been a sex worker.” 

She wants to pay tax and do the right thing. She also would like to be registered so that she could claim the wage subsidy in any future lockdowns.

But if you’ve been in lockdown and unable to work for months, she says, once you start working again, “Your first thought is not ‘I'm going to put some of this on my student loan, and then I'm going to put 20 percent of that aside to pay tax at the end of the year’.” 

“No, it’s ‘I want to pay for all of the shit that I've put off’, things like dental work, and I want to put stuff into my emergency cash fund for if WINZ decides to cut me off overnight and I still have to pay rent the next day’”. 

“I feel very much like I'm put in a position of trying to choose between paying for my more immediate needs and immediate expenses, versus planning ahead financially for future lockdowns.”

It’s not just the lockdowns: how the pandemic has impacted sex work

Pre-Covid, in the far-off days of 2019 and early 2020, Riley was earning around $2000 a day. 

Now, she says, she might earn $600 across three days. “People in general have been more cautious with their money,” she says. “They're not including those luxuries in their spending, because for a lot of people, it is a luxury to go see a sex worker.”

The loss of international travellers has been the biggest hit. A large part of her clientele was businessmen popping in to see her while on work trips. “The amount of times I'd have clients rushing to put their clothes on, and being like ‘I gotta go catch my flight!’ That was pretty common,” she says.

“That's not to say that I think the border shouldn’t be closed,” she says. “I would much rather stamp out Covid than make a bunch of money.”

Even among the clients who are in the country, people are more cautious. Sex work, by its very nature, is up close and personal. There’s no two metre distancing and saliva and body fluids are literally part of the job. 

Clients have become more specific with who they see, says Riley. Pre-Covid, someone might try all the girls at an agency, but now they tend to stick to their regular worker.

There have been a couple of times she’s seen “an absolute surge” of clients quickly getting in before a lockdown. “But then we've also had a couple of lockdowns, where suddenly it's absolutely dead. And people are a lot more cautious.”

Level 2, where it’s technically legal to work, but logistically complicated

New level 2 Delta restrictions mean both worker and client need to keep masks on the entire time, which as the website of the sex worker’s collective NZPC points out, “means you may have to be inventive for what positions and activities you undertake as you will not be able to kiss or be within the moist breath zone.”

“For a lot of men, intimacy is what they are there for,” says Riley. “So not being able to kiss is quite uncomfortable for them.”

Also, she says, if we’re at level 2, there’s a reason, so clients are a bit more afraid of in-person contact. “Because it is still very close contact when you're having sex, even if you're not kissing.”

“I have worked at level 2 before, but the money is crap”, says Rachel. “It scares clients, it scares other working girls. I personally will not work until level 1.”

What about online work?

With the popularity of sites like OnlyFans, some may think it would be an easy switch to work from home. But it’s complicated for full-service sex workers. Riley says she’s too afraid of being identifiable.

“As a full service sex worker, I'm not face out. So like, that just means like my face is always blurred or not in the photos. But on OnlyFans generally to get more money, you kind of need to have your face in it.”

“I've had other full-service friends who have been found by their clients, or their clients have come to their house and things like that. And I think having an online presence that my face is visible - I'm just far too afraid that's going to be an issue.”

Jess says because she’s been working under the table while receiving the benefit, “I can't have a photo of me with my face out fucking myself with a dildo for money on the internet. That's a massive legal risk for me. So I feel like that financial avenue was very closed off to me.”

A two-tiered system

Jess says the effect of Covid has been to create a two-tiered system, where those who were already relatively financially secure, declaring their income and paying tax and doing all of their sex work above board, have been financially protected. 

“Whereas the people who were more tight, more precarious to start with, have ended up becoming even more precarious.”

She wishes financial support “was tied to presenting proof of expenses that can't be met, like rent and car payments, as opposed to proof of how much you were earning at work before then. And core benefit levels should be lifted to a more livable level in line with the living wage.”

The wage subsidy pays $600 a week for full-time employees. The average benefit rate is around $300 a week.

“I get not wanting to just hand out free money to people willy nilly. But I think that a lot of the existing framework for financial support for people who are negatively impacted by lockdown is not adequate for the needs of sex workers. Because we are an industry that is cash-based that has quite a transient and often anonymous workforce. And I know a lot of people are really struggling.”

With Delta, what’s the future of in-person sex work?

Rachel says she’s unsure how the Delta variant will impact sex workers: will clients need to show a vaccine passport? How would that be enforced?

“I would love to sit here and say that I’ll only see fully vaxxed clients, or that sex workers as a whole should only see fully vaxxed clients. But that doesn't take into consideration sex workers who can't afford to not see clients, or migrant sex workers who legally can’t work in New Zealand, or folks who work in brothels or agencies who can't vet their own clients.”

“I would love for there to be zero community cases when I'm working. And that's kind of the rule I've gone by. But whether or not that's achievable with the Delta variant, it's kind of a different story.”

If she could say anything to the general public, she says, it would be: “Book sex workers. Tip them. I'm really lucky that I've had regulars and clients pre-book sessions for when we're in level 1. It's really helpful to be able to put that money into a savings account. Just tell people to tip your local sex workers.”

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