Covid-19 ‘bad for business’

Since alcohol sales were banned during lockdown sex workers in Milnerton no longer have convenient access to the free government-issued condoms distributed at liquor stores. This is one of many problems they have been facing since lockdown.

Women’s Day is just another day for the sex workers of Milnerton, only this year Covid-19 has made things extra tough.

Jacqueline Burger, a 51-year-old sex worker in Koeberg Road, says she earned about R2 500 a night from the 10 to 20 clients she saw before lockdown hit. Now she battles to make R500.

“Now you’re lucky if you only get one client a night,” she says.

The lockdown curfew and interference from the police, she says, have been very bad for business.

“SAPS has been chasing customers away since lockdown. They use loud speakers saying, ‘Girls go home or we lock you up.’”

Last month, she says, the police fined a client who stopped for her. She didn’t see the police write out any paperwork, but they took money from the man, she says.

Clients have also become more stingy during lockdown, she says, and try as she might to barter, she has no choice but to settle for whatever amount she’s offered.

“Before lockdown, a quickie would be R250. Now you have to settle for R50.”

When she isn’t worrying about making ends meet, she’s haunted by the trauma of something that happened six months ago.

“A man picked me up and took me to a house in Milnerton. When we got there, the others were waiting.”

That night she was gang-raped by 10 men.

Now when she tries to sleep, her mind replays it. She wakes up screaming and shaking.

She didn’t seek counselling, but she says she’s warned other girls she lives with about the man.”I still see him picking up girls,” she says.

Marylin*, 30, works in a Koeberg Road sex shop that doubles as a brothel, and she says the lockdown curfew has also been bad for business.

“The curfew starts at 10pm and girls only come out around 10pm,” she says. “Now they get arrested and kept overnight in a cell, which means they don’t make any money.”

Before lockdown, Marylin took home R1 300 to R1 600 a week. Now it’s about R700. Her husband has not been able to work since the lockdown, making her the sole breadwinner in the house. Since lockdown, she also started paying for tutoring lessons for her 7-year-old son.

“My weekly clients are now my monthly clients,” she says. She believes most of her clients are taking advantage of lockdown and dropping what they’re willing to pay.

“I try to negotiate as best as I can, but I must settle with what they’ve got on them. I used to send my mother money; now I can’t. And she’s also been retrenched because of lockdown.”

Practising safe sex is also more difficult under lockdown, says Marylin. She still uses condoms, but they’re harder to come by these days, she says.

“The liquor stores used to supply free government condoms, but now they’re closed so you have to go to the clinic to get condoms and not all the girls want to be seen.”

The Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Task Force (SWEAT) used to visit every three months to provide condoms and test the girls for sexually transmitted diseases, but she has not seen them since last year.

Marylin says the brothel has taken some steps to prevent the spread of Covid-19.

“I need to look after myself as well as my clients,” she says. “As soon as customers come in, we sanitise their hands and take their temperatures, and we ask them to keep their masks on until they are inside the room.”

According to Sweat spokeswoman Megan Lessing, the organisation’s mobile clinic was hijacked in Khayelitsha a week before lockdown.

The non-profit only had one mobile clinic and it’s taking some time to have it replaced.

“A big part of Sweat’s work is outreach, but when lockdown started everything stopped. We didn’t know much about Covid-19 and our main concern was the safety of our staff.”

Since lockdown, she says, Sweat’s focus has shifted from outreach work to raising money for sex workers.

“Since the beginning of lockdown we’ve asked sex workers not to do sex work because of social distancing, but how do you ask them to stop if you can’t help them with money?”

Sweat started a BackaBuddy campaign at the beginning of lockdown to help sex workers across the country with food vouchers and food parcels. Their fund-raising target is R500 000. To date, they have raised R267 024 which has fed more than 450 sex workers.

Milnerton police station commander Brigadier Marius Stander says the Covid-19 regulations apply to all and his officers enforce them accordingly.

Regarding Ms Burger’s claims about SAPS fining her client, Brigadier Stander said: “No one reported at Milnerton SAPS with regards to fines issued and money paid to SAPS members directly.”

Sex workers who need condoms or food can call the Sweat helpline at 0800 606060 or send a “Please Call Me” to 071 357 7632. To donate to the backabuddy campaign click here.

* Not her real name.