For Canadian sex workers, CERB was a lifeline — if they could get it

As a sex worker, Melody Merlot started to worry about her livelihood even before COVID-19 arrived in Canada. 

Although the single mother of four lives in small-town Saskatchewan, her job had her regularly interacting with strangers, both from within Canada and from other parts of the world, and she did not want to risk bringing COVID-19 home to her children. 

Merlot — the name she uses for work, which CBC News agreed to use in this piece over concerns for her and her family’s safety — decided to stop working in February, shortly before the provincial lockdown. 

“My last client … was a gentleman who was here from Iran,” she said. “And it clicked that this guy was flying internationally, so now I’m in close contact with someone who was flying internationally. 

“And the day after that client, I decided that I wouldn’t be seeing anyone anymore.”

Sex workers face challenges filing taxes

Like many Canadians, Merlot’s decision to mitigate risks and focus on her family’s safety resulted in a steep loss of income. But because she pays taxes on her sex work income, she was eligible for the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) and began claiming it in April. 

“I was really blessed and fortunate that I did not have to work as an escort through the pandemic,” she said. “Having that extra two grand a month was really beneficial to help me not have to turn to survival sex work.”

It’s a common misconception that Canadian sex workers cannot, or should not, file taxes on their income because their industry exists in what many consider to be a legal grey area, with fears over arrests and other reprisals despite prostitution itself no longer being illegal in the country.

Current status of sex work laws in Canada

  • The Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act (Bill C-36) criminalizes the purchasing of sex.
  • But it is not illegal to sell sexual services in Canada.
  • That said, the government has acknowledged “it is difficult to engage in prostitution without committing a criminal offence.”
  • It is illegal to financially benefit from the sale of someone else’s sexual services or advertise someone else’s sexual services.
  • Under the act, sex workers are considered victims of sexual exploitation.
  • The act, which went into effect in Dec. 2014, is due for its five-year review this year.

“In fact, it’s the opposite,” explained Toronto-based tax lawyer and CPA David Rotfleisch. “They have to. They should, and they can get in trouble if they don’t file their tax returns.”

The Canada Revenue Agency’s policy is that even income from illegal activities is taxable. 

“Everybody, all Canadians, have to file taxes,” said Rotfleisch. “Sex workers are not exceptional in that way. You have to file your taxes, I have to file my taxes, everyone has to contribute.”

But Merlot, who registered her work as a formal business after the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act came into force in 2014, said sex workers who want to file their taxes face a number of barriers.

“A lot of sex workers don’t realize that they can actually declare their income and write off their expenses and have a registered business and a GST number,” she said. “And it’s also really hard to find an accountant who is sex-worker-friendly and who will do your taxes appropriately and without judgment.”

CERB only available to those file a return

This year, only those who were able to navigate the tax filing process had access to critical financial support.

Valerie Scott, a Toronto-based sex worker and legal co-ordinator for advocacy group Sex Professionals of Canada, said the current legal status of Canadian sex workers makes it feel too risky for many in the industry to file taxes at all. 

“To be known as a sex worker, to file taxes as a sex worker, to have any information with the government in any form [is] exceedingly dangerous,” she said. “There are so many ways we can get caught up. We’re sitting ducks.  

A sex worker takes off her face mask at her home in Madrid in April, amid a national lockdown to slow the spread of COVID-19. Many sex workers felt they had to continue working during pandemic shutdowns, despite the risk to their health. (Oscar Del Pozo/AFP/Getty Images)

“If you step to the right, you get arrested. If you step to the left, your children can be taken away. If you work at home, a neighbour with a grudge can call the snitch number. If you rent, they can inform your landlord, because you’re allowing an illegal act to take place in your apartment.”

Privacy laws prohibit the CRA from sharing the information it collects, including with police, immigration or border agents. 

‘Twisting in the wind’

Still, Scott believes the “grey area” legal status for sex workers and uncertainty about whether or not they should file taxes has forced many to choose between the risks of continuing to work or severe economic hardship during the pandemic. 

“I think Canada should decriminalize sex work, so even the sex workers working on the street who don’t have bank accounts and have a chaotic lifestyle could qualify for help,” Scott said. “[Instead], the government is leaving us twisting in the wind.”

Under Canadian law, it is legal to sell sexual services but illegal to buy sex. It’s a grey area that makes some sex workers hesitant to file income tax returns. (Mark Blinch/The Canadian Press)

A spokesperson for the federal justice minister said the government is examining whether the current sex work laws are meeting their objectives.

“We continue to engage with individuals and groups affected by the former Bill C-36,” Rachel Rappaport said. “We’re also aware of the specific circumstances that they’ve shared with our government in light of the circumstances posed by the pandemic.”

I do this out of choice, and the CERB benefit allowed me to preserve the dignity of that choice.– Rowan Reid, sex worker

She said the upcoming five-year review of prostitution laws will allow Parliament to “examine the full range of effects that this legislation has had since its coming into force.”

Rappaport said that to the best of her knowledge no parliamentary committee has begun the review process for the bill so far. 

‘I would have had to take great risks in order to survive’

Rowan Reid, an Edmonton-based sex worker, worried about how she would cover her expenses after she decided to stop working in March.

“It was nerve-racking, because CERB hadn’t been conceived of at that point,” she said.  

To pay rent and buy groceries in April, Reid relied on the Alberta government’s one-time supplementary payment of $1,142 as well as a gift from a fellow sex worker in Toronto. 

But as a taxpayer, she was relieved to find out more stable support was on its way when CERB was announced. 

“I do claim all my sex work income,” she said. “I recommend all sex workers do it. I’m tired of the stereotypes that we don’t.”

Without CERB, Reid said she would have had no choice but to keep working throughout the pandemic and might have had to compromise her standards for screening and interacting with potential clients.

“I would have had to take great risks in order to survive,” she said. “And it’s nice to not feel pushed into being a sex worker.

“I do this out of choice, and the CERB benefit allowed me to preserve the dignity of that choice, the dignity of autonomy, to not feel forced into sex work to make ends meet.” 

Struggling without income

Most of the sex workers Scott has spoken with through Sex Professionals of Canada were ineligible for CERB. This has had dire consequences for many in the industry.

“We’ve received several calls from women crying because they’ve lost their apartments,” she said. “They’re terrified. They don’t want to work during this pandemic, and they don’t want to move into a shelter during a pandemic.”

Anne Margaret Deck, vice-chair of the board for sex workers’ rights group Maggie’s Toronto, said her organization has seen a similar situation unfolding. 

A downtown Toronto strip club is seen in September 2020. During the pandemic, some in the sex industry have been trying to transition to online work. (Colin Perkel/The Canadian Press)

“Sex workers have informed us that since the beginning of the pandemic they have struggled to afford necessities, such as food, rent, medication and toiletries,” she said. “Sex workers with dependents, with physical or mental disabilities, or with precarious housing or immigration status have experienced particular hardship.” 

Marielle Hossack, a spokesperson for Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough, said the government is working on addressing the needs of vulnerable populations during this pandemic. 

“Our government has been providing special one-time payments to individuals eligible under existing programs, as well as investing in shelters, food banks, and community organizations,” she said in an email.

While some sex workers have moved to online work, that has become more difficult in recent years. 

“Many camming or chat platforms are increasingly hostile and unfair to sex workers, due in part to the SESTA/FOSTA legislation in the United States,” Deck said.

Intended to reduce sex trafficking, the 2018 laws make websites criminally responsible and legally liable for the content they host. Because of this, many websites that sex workers used to advertise their services, screen clients and warn others about bad or dangerous clients have been shut down worldwide. 

Working through the pandemic

And it can be difficult for sex workers to find work in other industries. 

What I’ve found really surprising about this whole experience is that when you don’t have to scramble to make ends meet, you can reset and go after the things you want.– Melody Merlot, sex worker

“I have not heard of any sex workers transitioning from sex work to another industry during this pandemic,” said Deck via email. “Transitioning from sex work to other kinds of employment (what is colloquially known in the sex work community as a ‘vanilla’ job) is difficult for sex workers to navigate even in ‘normal’ times for many reasons, negative stigma being one of the greatest.”

Those who have continued to work in person throughout the pandemic, including Scott herself, say they are doing what they can for themselves, their clients and their contacts to mitigate the chances of contracting COVID-19, but it’s an imperfect system. 

“Sex workers are pretty creative; we always have been,” said Scott. “So when a client comes in, we keep track of every surface his hands have touched, and all the bedding and everything gets washed after each client. Some people are even wearing masks while they’re having sex with each other. It’s not terribly sexy, but it helps.”

CERB safety net is gone

As CERB came to an end earlier this month, Reid went back to work. Although the case numbers in Alberta are increasing, she needs the income. Her final CERB payment will cover her rent and bills for October.

“It’s a little nerve-racking to know that the risk is increasing but there’s no longer a safety net,” she said. 

The rigorous screening requirements she has implemented for clients have not been well received across the board, so she is earning much less than usual and is worried about having to take even more risks this winter. 

“It feels like I’m skating closer to the line of being a survival sex worker, which is a very uncomfortable feeling,” she said. “It makes me feel like I don’t have that choice — that autonomy — when what I love so much about sex work is that I’m in full control. I’m in control of who I see, I’m in control of my rate, I don’t do a single bloody thing that I don’t want to do.”

Merlot has not gone back to sex work. Instead, because of the other financial support she was able to access as a mature student and a single mother, she has been able to concentrate on her studies as a psychology major at the University of Saskatchewan. 

“I thank my lucky stars right now because just as CERB ended, my student funding came into play,” she said. 

Looking back on what CERB meant for her and her family, Merlot wishes some kind of financial safety net could be available to more sex workers, and not just during times of crisis. 

“What I’ve found really surprising about this whole experience is that when you don’t have to scramble to make ends meet, you can reset and go after the things you want.”

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