Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs

On Migration, Sex Work and the Pandemic in the Caribbean

April 28, 2020

On Migration, Sex Work and the Pandemic in the Caribbean


Kamala Kempadoo (2020-2021 Craig M. Cogut Visiting Professor of Latin American Studies)

April 28, 2020.


Millions of people have lost their jobs and sources of income due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Perhaps the hardest hit around the world are migrant workers who generally are not covered by the national health schemes, often live in close quarters, earn low or subsistence wages, have little to no savings to fall back on or may be debt-bonded, and cannot easily return home or take up employment abroad due to the travel restrictions.  Nevertheless, in many instances they are designated “essential workers,” providing the care and farm work necessary to keep the world’s population alive. Yet they are barely protected against the virus. And as the UN Secretary-General reminds us, “Nearly 60 per cent of women around the world work in the informal economy, earning less, saving less, and at greater risk of falling into poverty” and hence are more deeply impacted by the pandemic than men.[1] The future for migrants, particularly migrant women, looks particularly grim.

The Caribbean region is not exempt here. From my shelter in Barbados, I have been following the news about migrant workers in the region, and several trends have been emerging that could use some comment and analysis.

First, is an alarming picture where a migrant worker sending country in the region – Jamaica in this instance –  has required those heading to Canada to work in the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP) to sign a waiver releasing the Jamaican government of any liability for costs or losses associated with Covid-19. [2] The SAWP provides seasonal labour under bilateral government agreements for farms in Canada, with workers permitted to stay up to 8 months.  Whether other Caribbean countries have introduced similar measures needs to be investigated, although Jamaica is one of the main regional participants in the program. Nevertheless, what these reports seem to indicate is that there is a greater concern by the Jamaican government for the state of the economy than the welfare of its people, with migrant workers  being expected to carry some of the greatest social and economic risks. It points towards the priority of many Caribbean governments in their response to the pandemic, with migrant farm workers being relegated to the category of “the disposable.”

Second, is a heightened focus on migrant working women. In Barbados, the very first person to be detained by the police for breaking the curfew, introduced on March 27th,  was a young Jamaican woman. She was described in one of the daily papers as having “no fixed abode or or the financial means to sustain her stay on the island,” and  as “unable to give a satisfactory account for being on the road during the curfew” yet was on the island temporarily to make some money.[3] Could it be that this migrant woman was scapegoated and held up to the Barbadian public as an example of what would happen if they contravened the draconian curfew regulation (liable to a BB$50,000/US$25,000 fine and/or 12 months imprisonment)? After all, she wasn’t the only person who was out and about that evening– judging from the traffic on the road in front of my house – but clearly she was an easy target – young, a woman, alone, walking the street at night, poor and far from home  -   the typical image of the “loose woman,” and thus automatically deemed irresponsible, illegal and punishable. She was the target of the kind of sexual profiling that migrant working women must often deal with.

This young woman’s arrest was followed a few days later by a report of a police raid on a party in Port-of-Spain Trinidad that also broke the country’s quarantine regulations. There, 8 of the 16 people arrested were identified as migrants – Venezuelans – of whom 7 were reported to be young women, said to be “conducting lewd dancing” pool-side. Apparently 50 businessmen were planning to attend the party in the wee hours of the morning.[4] Striking in this report is the focus on the migrant women. We are not told the gender of the non-migrants, but rather presented with a picture of young Spanish-speaking women being irresponsible, acting illegally, and being engaged in what the article suggests was prostitution-related business. The focus – and implicitly the blame – for breaking the curfew and endangering the health of the nation – was placed on the women.

Which brings me to the third, and perhaps most obvious trend – a focus in the media on migrant women in the sex trade. While in the case of the Jamaican women in Barbados and the Venezuelan women in Trinidad a suggestion of sex work related activities is made in the news reports, more explicit has been the coverage of what is happening with migrant sex workers themselves. Thus in Barbados, a prominent spokeperson for, and organizer, of the adult industry – has pointed out that  dozens of CARICOM workers in the sex industry are amongst the hardest hit economically and are stranded away from home, with the women calling for their situations to be recognized and be given assistance by their governments.[5]  Others link migrant sex workers to trafficked persons and minors (i.e. “women and children”) , demanding help from the governments to return the “victims”  home, pointing out that this group is both at risk of contracting and spreading the virus,[6] - thus a health risk.  The trope of migrant sex workers as child-like victims and vectors of disease is not new, and has haunted migrant sex workers across the region for decades, while supporting a strict policing of their bodies and movements. 

In Curacao  - the only territory in the region where the state officially regulates entry for sex work –- a group of  migrant workers from the Dominican Republic are reported to have been flown back home by their government, with a group of Colombian women standing by to be repatriated.[7] In the rest of the region, especially the English-speaking countries, it remains to be seen how this out-of-work migrant population will be treated, given that in most of the countries, prostitution is criminalized, entry into the countries for sex work prohibited,  and sex workers often considered “unworthy” of any government help or social recognition. Yet sexual services remain in demand and while the sex industry may be held up as an example of how entertainers and others can organize on-line business and e-commerce in the region,[8] sex workers cannot simply stay home or work on-line, and are often driven to take great risks to survive.

In short, Caribbean migrant workers – whether engaged in farm work in Canada or in sex work in the region – are presented to us as in very precarious positions both in terms of employment and health in these times of the pandemic. And it is the migrant (sex working) women amongst them who are particularly hard hit, with little support or alternative – a situation that is replicated world-wide, as migrant sex workers in North America and Western Europe are pointing out: “The state wants us to die. They don’t want us to survive. Racism and poverty affected us hugely before COVID-19, but now it is unbearable for migrant and trans sex workers. The government puts money to policing us, but does not care to provide us with any support.” [9]

In these times, as hard as they are for many, the Caribbean needs to be mindful of its reliance on migratory labour and sexual labour, and on its regional integration through migration including for sex and entertainment industries, and to step up to take care of its most vulnerable and marginalized women.


[2] . https://www.thestar.com/business/2020/04/13/migrant-farm-workers-fear-exposure-to-covid-19.html . See also the recent article in the Guyana Stabroek News by Chris Ramsaroop & Kevin Edmonds “Critical, but expendable – migrant agricultural workers in the time of Covid-19”  for more details https://www.stabroeknews.com/2020/04/21/features/in-the-diaspora/critical-but-expendable-migrant-agricultural-workers-in-the-time-of-covid-19/ )

[4] See: https://barbadostoday.bb/2020/04/10/region-tt-police-bust-covid-19-quarantine-party/? Also:


[9] See http://redlightcovideurope.org/france/ as well as the call to action by Maggies: Toronto Sex Workers Action Project and Butterfly, the Asian and Migrant Sex Workers Support Network. https://www.maggiesto.org/covid19