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Inspections drive Richmond sex work into 'dangerous locations': Advocacy group

City says bylaw inspectors are 'trained and experienced' when going to massage parlours.
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City council will consider increasing bylaw fines for infractions at 'body rub studios' in Richmond.

Recent inspections at Richmond massage parlours – the latest on Jan. 12 - have driven sex workers underground, according to a sex worker advocacy group.

The City of Richmond has recently done inspections at the six licensed "body-rub studios" in the city to check for bylaw compliance.

SWAN Vancouver, an advocacy agency for migrant and immigrant sex workers, called these inspections “traumatic city-led raids,” and said they have resulted in “scaring dozens of women away from licensed businesses to more dangerous locations.”

“Some women are so scared of bylaw officers that they decided to stop working at massage parlours and work at apartments. Is this what the city is hoping to do?” said Julie (last name withheld), a massage parlour worker, in a press release from SWAN.

A recent motion from Coun. Kash Heed to crack down on massage parlours has resulted in city staff recommending that fines be increased for infractions.

The city, however, objected to the language used by SWAN to describe the inspections.

“They were not ‘raids’ and the use of that terminology is inappropriate and disrespectful to the work of those involved,” said city spokesperson Clay Adams.

He added city bylaw staff “are trained and experienced in ensuring the establishments do not violate the bylaws.”

Richmond bylaws and RCMP inspected all six body rub establishments, and while there were some violations for bylaw non-compliance, no criminal activity was found, explained a report going to city council’s community safety committee next week.

Police concerned about human trafficking, organized crime

Investigating “major illegal sex work enterprises” is a concern for Richmond RCMP “due to the possible nexus to sexual assault, human trafficking, organized crime and child or youth sexual exploitation,” reads the report from the city’s director of bylaws and licencing, Mark Corrado, and Edward Warzel, manager of police services.

The report outlines three major cases over the past five years in Richmond involving suspected human trafficking.

In 2021, a person said they were being trafficked by organized crime and forced to do drugs, threatened and “exploited to do sex work,” the report notes.

This resulted in charges being recommended against three people and forwarded to Crown counsel. This is still under investigation, according to Richmond RCMP.

A case in 2019, where a sex worker said they were assaulted, their movements controlled and they were forced to have sex with “multiple clients a day,” ended with one person being convicted of assault and uttering threats.

The third case, from 2023, ended without charges being laid.

The community safety meeting takes place on Tuesday, Feb. 13 at 4 p.m.

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