At first glance, a Saturday night in October may have looked like a pre-pandemic evening in Amsterdam’s famous red-light district.
Couples, tourists, and bachelor and bachelorette parties from all over the world browsed the bright posters of near-naked sex workers. Tall colonial-style brothel windows, laced with red-and-pink neon lights, illuminated the neighborhood. The rainy and windy weather had little impact on the massive crowd.
Behind each window, sex workers in lingerie used different techniques to grab potential clients’ attention. Some tapped the glass, others winked and blew kisses, and a few sat on barstools and scrolled through their phones.
“In Amsterdam, prostitution is number one,” Amanda, a sex worker who declined to use her real name, told ABC News at the time.
In early fall, the Netherlands had some of the country’s least strict COVID-19 restrictions since the pandemic began. Life resembled what it was like before the coronavirus, but, for Amanda and other sex workers, it was clear that even with relaxed pandemic measures, business was slow. In fact, workers in the sex industry said they have been overlooked financially since the start of the pandemic.
Inside Amanda’s place of work, the ceiling was covered with red neon lights. A speaker blasted electronic music, making the space feel like a nightclub. At the right of the entrance was a small staircase leading upstairs, where Amanda met with clients. The second floor was furnished with only a twin-sized bed, a pillow and a dark sheet. Despite the vibrant ambience, she had only seen one client by 11 p.m.
“Yes, now COVID is a big problem in the work. Now it’s very down,” she said. Amanda shared that prior to 2020, she could make up to $1,400 per shift. She now made a fraction of that.
Although business was slow in October compared to years past, some sex workers at the time seemed optimistic about the end of the pandemic. That was before a spike in COVID cases in November and the Omicron variant caused the Netherlands to enter a new lockdown right before the holidays.
In response to the resulting economic stress, the Dutch government offered financial support to businesses and the self-employed until the end of March. While COVID restrictions were lifted last week for restaurants, bars and cafes, full relief for sex workers remains to be seen.
A late-2020 study conducted by the Prostitute Information Center, a nonprofit organization in the red-light district, and SekswerkExpertise, a resource network, found that many self-employed sex workers who applied for financial aid were rejected because they did not qualify under the government’s requirements for self-employers. Additionally, people in the business have been disproportionately impacted during the pandemic because curfews essentially criminalize sex work, making it difficult to earn income in a nightlife industry.
Zina Berlin, a Dutch sex-worker-rights advocate who works with the Prostitute Information Center, told ABC News that advocates have been calling on government leaders to provide curfew exemptions and additional financial support for sex workers. What they’re fighting for is beyond money – they’re fighting for their livelihood, she said.
“When we write letters to the government, we try to really stress this,” Berlin said “It’s not just numbers; it’s not just money. If you lose your income, you lose your home; you can’t support your loved ones anymore. It breaks lives. It’s really individuals [who] suffer so much.”
A spokesperson for Amsterdam Mayor Femke Halsema told ABC News that the “city-funded care partner has put in a lot of effort in helping sex workers with COVID financial relief applications.” The city has “processed those applications as quickly as possible,” the spokesperson said.
However, Iris, coordinator of the PIC, who identifies under a professional pseudonym, said they are currently continuing their 2020 research and are already finding similar numbers for 2021.
“Yes, there is aid for people registered at the [Netherlands] Chamber of Commerce. But only under strict conditions, that sex workers can’t adhere to,” Iris said. “Research has shown most sex workers don’t apply, as they don’t qualify and of those who try, many get rejected. Not only in Amsterdam, but in the entirety of the Netherlands. Sex workers who are forced by the government to work under the Opting-in system, don’t get any type of financial aid.”
Under the opt-in system, people can work for brothels or escort agencies without being considered an employee, allowing sex workers complete autonomy. Still, in this scheme, they are not considered self-employed, which prevents them from claiming self-employed benefits like coronavirus aid, forcing them to find help through other avenues.
In addition, Berlin said many workers are dealing with mental health challenges. She told ABC News three people she knew in the industry have died by suicide due to pandemic challenges, but she also emphasized that this is a resilient community.
“We also have an emergency fund that was created by sex workers themselves, so we can give some money and food to other sex workers, so we really try to be there,” she said. “There was an emergency helpline that was set up, so if people struggled, they could call and we would refer them to other organizations that could provide help. So, we really do our best as a community, and I think we have shown over these years how resilient we are.”
Still, other challenges are on the horizon. Sex workers are speaking out to keep the red-light district in the city after government officials proposed moving it due to tourists’ rowdy behavior.
Moreover, the Prostitute Information Center recognizes that sex work is often stigmatized, and they are combating stigmas by providing educational tours of the red-light district and lectures on sex worker experiences. The nonprofit hopes that sharing knowledge will create an easier path for better rights and protections.
While the start to the new year isn’t what many anticipated, the hope is that summer will bring better financial opportunities for people in the red-light district.
“Sex work is work. Even if you don’t agree with it, we still deserve the same rights and respect as other professions, and you don’t have to be a sex worker,” Berlin said. “You can let us be the sex workers.”
Listen to the piece on ABC’s Perspective podcast.