An incident where NT Chief Minister Michael Gunner incorrectly labelled a COVID case as a sex worker on social media has prompted calls for legislative safeguards which protect the industry from discrimination and vilification.
The since removed post made on Mr Gunner's Facebook page on Monday afternoon stated that a COVID case in the recent Darwin-Katherine cluster, a 21-year-old woman, was a sex worker.
Although the post said the woman "should not be judged for this", it also said the woman's contacts "are at higher risk of being infected than standard close contacts".
The woman has since denied being a sex worker to the media and the post was deleted, with Mr Gunner apologising for the mix-up.
"There was a process failure which later led to information which was factually incorrect and had not been approved by the Chief Minister being published to the Chief Minister's Facebook page," a spokesperson for Mr Gunner said in a statement.
"The Chief Minister and his office unreservedly apologise for the publication of this incorrect information and any hurt or distress that this caused."
Chief executive for Scarlet Alliance, Australia's peak body for sex worker advocacy, Jules Kim, said despite Mr Gunner's apology, the mishap fed existing stigma and misinformation around the industry.
She said sex workers have been suffering compounded impacts of discrimination during the pandemic at the hands of politicians, the media and police.
"There has been repeated instances of sex workers being unfairly targeted during the pandemic, and we've seen that play out time and time again," Ms Kim said.
"This is despite actually no recorded transmission [of COVID-19] in a sex work setting.
"Many sex workers have been really responsible in ceasing work or adapting their work practices and actually employing COVID safety measures like changing their work practices or moving to non-contact forms of work.
"It seems like no matter what we do ... we will always be the scapegoat, the convenient scapegoat. And that is really distressing."
Sex worker and representative of the NT's Sex Worker Reference Group, Sienna Charles, said even if the woman was a sex worker, it would have been inappropriate for the NT Government to share that information publicly.
"If she had been a sex worker, that actually puts her in danger of outing her to her general community, to her employer, perhaps to her landlord, to her family - if she hadn't told them about her work," Ms Charles said.
"Because obviously, considering the amount of stigma and discrimination that we face, sex workers can't often be honest about our jobs to the general wider community."
Ms Charles said the "outing" of a sex worker can put them in physical danger.
"A lot of media outlets and a lot of people seem to think it's completely fine to out sex workers when it actively puts us in danger."
Now based in Canberra, Ms Charles does fly-in fly-out work in the Northern Territory, but said this incident makes her concerned about how she could be treated the next time she works in the jurisdiction.
"Next time I go up to the Northern Territory, I feel like I'm going to be subject to extra scrutiny by the people on the border and by the police," she said.
"I mean, as a white woman, I get less scrutiny in general. This doesn't even talk about the intersectionality with our migrant sex workers and Aboriginal sex worker communities.
"I expect that the migrant and the Aboriginal sex worker communities are going to experience even worse issues going forward."
Although sex work was fully decriminalised in the NT last year, Ms Kim said the incident demonstrates the need for sex workers to have a legal recourse for discrimination and vilification.
"We don't have mechanisms within current anti-discrimination and anti-vilification legislation in the Northern Territory where somebody could pursue a case of vilification or discrimination," Ms Kim said.
"That's the problem ... we just keep being treated as an easy target."
The NT Department of Attorney-General conducted community consultation in 2017 around modernising the Anti-Discrimination Act, with protections for sex workers and their associates being among the changes requested.
Attorney-General Selena Uibo said the legislative changes were likely to be introduced next year.
"We have consulted with a broad range of community stakeholders including sex workers," she said.
"Before any amendments are made to the Anti-Discrimination Act, an exposure draft bill will be released to ensure any further feedback is taken into consideration"
Ms Charles said she was "really looking forward" to seeing what changes the NT Government makes.
"We have a feeling they're going to be quite positive," she said.
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