'Stigmatised': Sex workers join criticism of UK banks

08 Aug 2023 01:13pm
Image for illustrative purposes only. - FILE PIX
Image for illustrative purposes only. - FILE PIX

LONDON - London-based sex worker Marin Scarlett and right-wing populist Nigel Farage might initially appear unlikely campaigning allies, but when it comes to the pitfalls of banking in Britain they share a common cause.

"It's ridiculous that financial institutions can act like moral arbiters," Scarlett told AFP, echoing Farage's exact same criticism last month after a scandal erupted around his treatment by British banks.

Farage's complaints about the closure of his account with the upmarket Coutts, a subsidiary of NatWest used by the late Queen Elizabeth II, dominated the news for days, prompted questions in parliament and cost top executives their jobs.

For Scarlett, who is in her thirties and started out as a sex worker 15 years ago, the sudden uproar was galling, given arbitrary account closures have plagued her profession for a "long time".

She accuses UK banks of applying "absurd, undue scrutiny" to those in the industry.

"Even though I knew everything I was doing was legal, you feel shamed and stigmatised," she said of the closures, which began in 2018 when a leading payment processor banned her.

The campaigner for the European Sex Workers' Rights Alliance was told her account would be frozen for six months before an evaluation.

"What do you mean by an evaluation? That's my money!" she recalled thinking.

Scarlett argues losing access to funds puts sex workers in a particularly vulnerable position.

"You have to do more work in the meantime and rush to accept more bookings which could put you in a weird situation," she said.

UK bank account closures have increased yearly since 2016-17, with over 1,000 shuttered each day in 2021-22, according to data compiled by the Financial Conduct Authority watchdog.

Farage, a former leader of the Brexit Party and anti-immigration party UKIP, complained that Coutts removed him as a client over his right-wing political views.

"Banks should be banks, they should not be moral arbiters," he said last month.

However, most terminations do not impact high-profile figures, with workers in professions associated with criminalisation - such as sex work - often targeted, according to campaigners.

"Financial discrimination against sex workers is an endemic problem in the UK banking industry", Audrey Caradonna, a spokesperson for Sex Workers Union (SWU), told AFP.

She said denying them new accounts and closing existing ones had been "increasing", with more and more SWU members "talking about having their accounts frozen".

Some have become embroiled in legal disputes with bank and payment processors over service denials, Caradonna noted.

An adult content creator on subscription service OnlyFans said one online bank had recently closed both her personal and business accounts without explanation.

"Total discrimination", the woman, who wished to remain anonymous, told AFP.

While UK regulations grant everyone the right to hold an account, banks can turn down those who could harm their reputations.

Sex work is legal in Britain but related activities, including solicitation and running brothels, are not.

That creates a grey area in which banks choose not to "risk" having sex worker customers, according to Caradonna.

"There are layers of insecurity around sex workers' access to banking", she said.

Following the furore around Farage, the UK government has proposed changes that would require banks to give longer notice periods and clearer explanations for closures, stating the need for "protecting freedom of expression".

Scarlett welcomed the new spotlight on the issue but questioned its timing.

"It's pretty gross that the conversation has to be triggered by this happening to a person that society deems important, powerful or rich enough," she said.

She recalled ending up "with a load of cash in a shoebox under my bed" after fearing the repercussions of depositing her earnings.

The risk of being shut out of banking "forces you to break rules that you otherwise would not break", Scarlett added.

Rosie Hodsdon, from National Ugly Mugs, a charity fighting violence against sex workers, agreed that they are often pushed towards the cash economy and made "more vulnerable to robberies" and domestic abuse.

Caradonna fears the ongoing impact of so-called de-banking, as more people turn to sex work amid the UK's cost-of-living crisis to avoid homelessness and pay bills.

The risk of bank accounts being closed is leaving the most vulnerable sex workers - those on state benefits - "terrified that they are going to wake up one day without access to their finances," she added.

"They will be forced to work in riskier ways to try and survive," the advocate warned. - AFP