By Tracy Cabrera
UNKNOWN to some, the severe economic downturn triggered by the coronavirus pandemic has badly impacted an oft-overlooked group of gainfully employed people: sex workers.
An estimated 200,000 to 300,000 sex workers across the country, including those working in karaoke bars and other nightspots and health spas, have been left jobless for months as a result of the lockdowns, which has forced the closure of all bars, nightlife venues and massage parlors since March.
Many Pinays who work in the country’s thriving, if largely illegal, sex industry have fallen on hard times economically, according to social workers.
Yet sex workers are ineligible for the monthly handouts the government has initiated for millions of newly unemployed people so as to cushion the economic blow to their lives.
“Our sex workers face a loss of income and have become increasingly vulnerable as a result of the restrictive measures put in place to respond to the coronavirus pandemic,” a social worker working with agencies monitoring the prevalence of human trafficking in the Philippines.
“Most Pinay sex workers are not eligible for the social protection measures included in the government’s stimulus package and most don’t have access to any support.”
“The government is not doing enough to support this group of people and their immediate needs,” a karaoke manager, who requested anonymity, pointed out.
“They are denied support because they are not categorized as laborers and legalized, (yet they should be) entitled to the same protections and welfare services as (people in) other professions,” she opined.
Hundreds of thousands of locals, particularly women and transwomen, work in the sex industry, which helps underpin the country’s key tourism sector that accounted for a portion of the country’s GDP.
Yet the authorities have long been ambivalent about their country’s image as a notorious global hub of sex tourism and cybersex. Although prostitution is illegal, the practice is widespread, especially at popular nightlife and tourist venues such as massage parlors and nightclubs.
Police routinely turn a blind eye to prostitution, and there have long been allegations that senior police and military officers directly benefit from the local sex industry by receiving cuts from takings at nightlife venues as a form of ‘protection money’.
“I don’t think this government will even (acknowledge) the existence of the sex industry,” an observer said.
The country’s sex industry, experts and insiders say, employs hundreds of thousands of people, many of whom would be hard-pressed to find better-paying jobs elsewhere because they lack employable skills and adequate education.
“Most of the women who come to work for us hail from poor families. They come to Manila and other urban centers like Cebu and Davao in the hope of a better life but realize that only low-paid jobs are open to them,” a business owner who runs a nightlife venue in Makati City at a popular tourist hub in the city’s business district said.
“Sex work is widely seen as degrading, but many people who work in the industry don’t see it that way. They see it as just another way of earning a living,” she added.
Yet most sex workers aren’t earning any living at all at the moment.
With all local establishments shuttered, normally lively nightlife hubs have stood deserted for more than two months, while sex tourism hubs such as the Malate and Ermita districts in Manila have seen all foreign tourism disappear overnight owing to a closing of international borders.
“I haven’t had a customer for a long time,” admits Grace, 22, who supplements her income as a hairdresser by moonlighting as a freelance sex worker in the once red light district of the capital.
A single mother who has left her young daughter in the care of her parents in a farming village in the northeastern boondocks of Samar, the young woman has not made any money for months.
She normally sends a large part of her monthly income to her parents to help them make ends meet as they look after her child. She hasn’t had any money to spare for sending home since earlier this year.
Hair salons were allowed to reopen but business at her establishment has yet to pick up for want of customers, she says.
She hasn’t had any more luck in her other line of work, either. Her regular customers, most of whom were foreign men from the United States, Europe, the Middle East, Japan and South Korea, have been AWOL since March as they returned to their home countries as a result of the pandemic.
“This situation is very bad for me,” Grace laments. “I don’t know how much longer I can survive like this.”