Spain: Sex workers left to fend for themselves under coronavirus lockdown

With the coronavirus pandemic emptying the streets of Madrid, life has become even more precarious for sex workers Evelyn, Alenca and Beyonce under the lockdown.

Spain: Sex workers left to fend for themselves under coronavirus lockdown

Already extremely vulnerable and with an ambiguous legal status, many of Spain's sex workers have struggled to make ends meet during the state of emergency, with clubs closed, clients staying home and fines for staying in the street.

“The club owners in Spain, those who could, just threw all the girls into the streets,” Evelyn Rochel, the only one who agreed to give her real name, remarks bitterly.

The 35-year-old Colombian lives in a room inside a Madrid hostess club and pays 2,100 euros ($2,300) per month for “the right to work” as a prostitute.

“The management says we pay these 2,100 euros for the room, they say it's rent, but that's a lie, I'm paying for the right to work,” she says.

There were 15 women at the club, most from Latin America, but almost all have left, according to Rochel.

She says she was allowed to stay but made to feel as if it was “a humanitarian gesture, and not the right of an employee who deserves somewhere to live”.

Despite her situation, Rochel is a hardened activist who last year forced the courts to acknowledge there is an employment relationship between a woman working as a hostess and the owners of the club, in a case involving one of Madrid's best-known brothels.

No legal protection 

She's also a member of OTRAS, the unofficial union of Spanish sex workers set up in 2018 in a country where prostitution is neither legal nor illegal, but is not recognised as employment.

The crisis has exposed what she says is a “shocking” paradox.

“It can't be that the big club owners, as businessmen, can legally furlough the waitresses, the cleaners and everyone else with a contract but throw the prostitutes onto the street, those who can't get help because they're not recognised as employees,” she said.

“That is just not right, we can't carry on like this.”

With all the clubs and bars shut down, “those who can get work online are doing it on the sly”, either hosting clients at home or at their house, despite the risks.

It's something she's considering.

“You've got to be able to feed your kids.” 

'I feel really exposed'

Alenca arrived in Madrid in October after fleeing violence against transgender people in her native Mexico.

When she couldn't pay her rent in April, the estate agency threatened to throw her out but she received legal help from OTRAS which also provides food packages.

Just before the epidemic took hold, she started receiving clients at home for “erotic massage” but has since stopped, shifting her business online.

Before switching on the webcam, she carefully makes herself up and puts on a wig.

“I don't like it, I feel really exposed,” she says.

“There are people who can record these sessions and I don't want it getting out. I'm not ashamed of what I do but I don't like people filming me because one day I want to change my life.”

For Beyonce, a 34-year-old trans woman from Ecuador, a normal work day means standing on a street in the Villaverde industrial zone, Madrid's red-light district, and getting into clients' cars.

But even before the state of emergency was declared on March 14, the work had all but dried up, with fear of the virus keeping both clients and sex workers away. 

'Hardly any clients' 

“I stopped working the day before the lockdown, but by then it was only those of us who had to go out to buy food or pay bills,” Beyonce told AFP.

“For several weeks, there were hardly any clients or working women.”

What sex workers needed more than ever was recognition, says the Ecuadoran, an activist with the AFEMTRAS collective that has been lobbying for premises where women can shower and use the toilet.

“As sex workers, we're part of society and we need to work to look after our kids. But right now, we're only recognised as victims, not as workers nor even as prostitutes,” she said, in a nod to the large numbers of foreigners caught up in sex-trafficking networks.

For now, with no money to pay the rent, she's just waiting for the day she can go back to work, even though it will be complicated with self-distancing rules.

“I hope I can get back on the street… even if I don't know how I'm going to do it.”

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Spain rules out EU’s advice on compulsory Covid-19 vaccination 

Spain’s Health Ministry said Thursday there will be no mandatory vaccination in the country following the European Commission’s advice to Member States to “think about it” and Germany’s announcement that it will make vaccines compulsory in February.

Spain rules out EU's advice on compulsory Covid-19 vaccination 
A Spanish man being vaccinated poses with a custom-made T-shirt showing Spain's chief epidimiologist Fernando Simón striking a 'Dirty Harry/Clint Eastwood' pose over the words "What part of keep a two-metre distance don't you understand?' Photo: José Jordan

Spain’s Health Minister Carolina Darias on Thursday told journalists Covid-19 vaccines will continue to be voluntary in Spain given the “very high awareness of the population” with regard to the benefits of vaccination.

This follows the words of European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen on Thursday, urging Member States to “think about mandatory vaccination” as more cases of the Omicron variant are detected across Europe. 

READ ALSO: Is Spain proving facts rather than force can convince the unvaccinated?

“I can understand that countries with low vaccine coverage are contemplating this and that Von der Leyen is considering opening up a debate, but in our country the situation is absolutely different,” Darias said at the press conference following her meeting with Spain’s Interterritorial Health Council.

According to the national health minister,  this was also “the general belief” of regional health leaders of each of Spain’s 17 autonomous communities she had just been in discussion with over Christmas Covid measures. 

READ MORE: Spain rules out new restrictions against Omicron variant

Almost 80 percent of Spain’s total population is fully vaccinated against Covid-19, a figure which is around 10 percent higher if looking at those who are eligible for the vaccine (over 12s). 

It has the highest vaccination rate among Europe’s most populous countries.

Germany announced tough new restrictions on Thursday in a bid to contain its fourth wave of Covid-19 aimed largely at the country’s unvaccinated people, with outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel speaking in favour of compulsory vaccinations, which the German parliament is due to vote on soon.

Austria has also already said it will make Covid-19 vaccines compulsory next February, Belgium is also considering it and Greece on Tuesday said it will make vaccination obligatory for those over 60.

But for Spain, strict Covid-19 vaccination rules have never been on the table, having said from the start that getting the Covid-19 jabs was voluntary. 

There’s also a huge legal implication to imposing such a rule which Spanish courts are unlikely to look on favourably. 

Stricter Covid restrictions and the country’s two states of alarm, the first resulting in a full national lockdown from March to May 2020, have both been deemed unconstitutional by Spain’s Constitutional Court. 

READ ALSO: Could Spain lock down its unvaccinated or make Covid vaccines compulsory?

The Covid-19 health pass to access indoor public spaces was also until recently consistently rejected by regional high courts for breaching fundamental rights, although judges have changed their stance favouring this Covid certificate over old Covid-19 restrictions that affect the whole population.

MAP: Which regions in Spain now require a Covid health pass for daily affairs?

“In Spain what we have to do is to continue vaccinating as we have done until now” Darias added. 

“Spaniards understand that vaccines are not only a right, they are an obligation because we protect others with them”.

What Spanish health authorities are still considering is whether to vaccinate their 5 to 11 year olds after the go-ahead from the European Medicines Agency, with regions such as Madrid claiming they will start vaccinating their young children in December despite there being no official confirmation from Spain’s Vaccine Committee yet.

READ MORE: Will Spain soon vaccinate its children under 12?

Spain’s infection rate continues to rise day by day, jumping 17 points up to 234 cases per 100,000 people on Thursday. There are now also five confirmed cases of the Omicron variant in the country, one through community transmission.

Hospital bed occupancy with Covid patients has also risen slightly nationwide to 3.3 percent, as has ICU Covid occupancy which now stands at 8.4 percent, but the Spanish government insists these figures are “almost three times lower” than during previous waves of the coronavirus pandemic.