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Richmond massage parlour bylaws under scrutiny

City council voted 7-2 last week to increase fines for non-compliant body-rub studios.
Laura Gillanders
Laura Gillanders has put forward a motion to look at Richmond's massage parlour bylaws.

A Richmond city councillor is asking city staff to look into “best practices” on city bylaws for body-rub studios.

Coun. Laura Gillanders is bringing a motion to this week’s community safety meeting, which, if passed, will direct city staff to consult with agencies that work with sex workers to compare Richmond’s bylaws with those in other cities and examine whether Richmond’s are “aligned with current best practices.”

Last week, city council voted 7-2 to increase fines for body-rub studios that aren’t in compliance with city bylaws.

City bylaws require people working in body-rub studios to register at Richmond City Hall in person and then at the RCMP detachment, something that “outs” them sex workers, explained Crystal Laderas, spokesperson for SWAN Vancouver, an agency that advocates for immigrant sex workers.

Gillanders wrote in her motion that city council “heard that having to come in to City Hall and register as an employee of a body rub studio is not discreet enough for some of these women. Perhaps there is a better way to present registration.”

Bronwyn McBride, a public health post-doctoral fellow at SFU who has been studying indoor sex work for eight years, told city council sex work has been criminalized “since the beginning of documented history.”

“Sex work cannot be legislated away,” McBride told city council. “It can be made safer or less safe, and that’s a policy decision.”

Coun. Kash Heed, who initiated the motion to crack down on massage parlours, questioned whether the women come to Canada knowing they’ll do sex work, to which McBride responded the women she’s interviewed have come through “legal channels of their own volition.”

She further said many immigrant women employed at body-rub studios have worked in low-paying jobs, and as immigrants, often encounter racism and discrimination.

The flexible hours and higher pay at a body-rub studio help with the high cost of living and many of them have children or parents they support.

But bylaw crackdowns in Richmond push women out of these “managed indoor venues” and send them working by themselves in apartments where they are more vulnerable to predatory behaviour.

“They push women away from police assistance and towards predators who exploit their lack of protection,” McBride said.

While the fines are issued to the businesses, not to employees, both Laderas and McBride noted the raids by bylaw officers scare the women and drive them away from body-rub studios.

In his original rationale for the motion, Heed was concerned about organized crime controlling women working in massage parlours.

According to Richmond RCMP's report to city council, someone alleged in 2021 that they were trafficked by an organized crime group in Richmond. The case was forwarded to Crown counsel with a recommendation to lay charges against three people for human trafficking. Police say the charges haven’t been approved yet.

In the end, the motion to increase bylaw fines passed with Couns. Laura Gillanders and Michael Wolfe voting in opposition.

This motion and the presentations to city council prompted Gillanders to ask for a discussion about the bylaws at this week’s community safety meeting.

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