Europe Economy

Germany's sex work deemed too risky for now as authorities fear contact-tracing problems

Key Points
  • Germany's sex workers protested in Hamburg last weekend because they have not been allowed to return to work.
  • Hamburg's authorities say it is still too risky to allow sex work to resume, however.
  • Prostitution is legal and regulated in Germany and all regulations concerning prostitution are a matter for the country's federal states.
Busy streets before the coronavirus pandemic around the Red Light District near Beatlesplatz, Reeperbahn and St Pauli in Hamburg, Germany.
Phil Clarke Hill

Germany's sex workers have been protesting at not being allowed to return to work as the country's economy has reopened after the coronavirus epidemic, but the industry has thrown up particular concerns for Germany's authorities.

Several hundred German sex workers and brothel operators protested in Hamburg at the weekend to demand the right to return to work after four months of prohibition due to lockdown and social-distancing measures. Prostitution is legal and regulated in Germany and all regulations concerning prostitution are a matter for the country's federal states.

Sex workers say they are being treated unfairly, given that other workers that have close contact with clients, such as hairdressers, beauticians and tattooists, have been allowed to return to work if protective measures are in place. Sex workers have said they are ready to implement enhanced hygiene measures and to keep records of clients to allow for contact tracing.

But Hamburg's authorities are wary, with the spokesman for the city's Ministry of Labour, Social, Family Affairs and Integration telling CNBC that by its intimate and often anonymous nature, sex work could allow the coronavirus to spread.

"It is in the very nature of services related to sex work to operate at a very close distance," Martin Helfrich, the spokesman for Hamburg's ministry of social affairs, told CNBC Monday.

"The intensified exhalation might spread the virus-contaminated aerosols even further than usual. Adding to these difficulties, it might prove difficult to trace contacts in case of a contamination, since the documentation of guests with the correct contact details can — owing to the circumstances — be expected to be flawed."

A reluctance among Germany's authorities to allow sex work to resume comes as the country is seen to have navigated the coronavirus much better than its European peers. While Germany has seen a similar number of cases to France, for example, with just over 200,000 confirmed infections to date, it has recorded far fewer related deaths. Germany has reported just over 9,000 fatalities, whereas France has seen over 30,000 deaths, according to the latest data from Johns Hopkins University.

Germany implemented an early, and robust, track and trace system enabling it to contain outbreaks quickly and it has attributed its low death toll in part to this measure.

Hamburg, a city that also lends its name to the surrounding region, has seen a far lower incidence of coronavirus than some other German states. It has recorded just over 5,000 coronavirus cases since the outbreak first emerged in Germany earlier in 2020, and 261 deaths. In the last week, it has only reported 11 new cases, according to Germany's public health body, the Robert Koch Institute. In contrast, the states of North Rhine-Westphalia and Bavaria have seen high numbers of infections with both recording over 45,000 cases each.

Hamburg spokesman Martin Helfrich stressed that the city's achievements in keeping coronavirus levels low "cannot be sacrificed by incautiously taken steps. Sex work is therefore still prohibited." He added that it was not envisaged that sex work would be prohibited entirely or permanently, however.

"We are looking into possible steps and circumstances back to the usual situation. The restraints on sex work will be lifted as soon as the pandemic situations allows it. At the moment, a specific date is not in prospect."

Associations representing sex workers in Germany have warned that the continuing closure of licensed venues had forced some sex workers onto the streets to make money, putting their health and personal safety at risk.

Hamburg's authorities have put in place different measures to support the people affected by the ban on sex work, Helfrich said, as many sex workers had lost their income during the pandemic and were unable to travel home (sex workers in Germany often originate from Eastern Europe). As such, the city had been funding advice centers and accommodation, he said.