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Richmond massage parlour workers defend safety of their work environment

Human trafficking isn't the problem public discourse makes it out to be: SWAN
SWAN helps migrant and immigrant women working in the sex trade. Judy Lee is an outreach worker at the agency that advocates for labour and legal protections for sex workers.

Stereotypes and emotionally charged stories about the trafficking of sex workers is only making their lives more dangerous, according to a couple of women working in Richmond massage parlours.

A woman recently claimed to the Richmond News that her husband got a sexually transmitted infection at a Richmond massage parlour, after which she contacted city bylaws to complain that such a business was running in the city. (See story here.)

Both the wife – who wanted to remain anonymous – and Richmond city councillor, Alexa Loo, told the News they’re worried women are being coerced into prostitution and there are under-aged girls working in massage parlours.

There are a lot of stereotypes about sex workers, said Alison Clancey, executive director of SWAN, an organization that advocates for migrant sex workers.

That they carry diseases and are home wreckers are a couple of them, but the most dangerous one is that they are victims of trafficking. That narrative inevitably prompts law enforcement to raid these establishments, which, in turn, drives the business into more isolated and  dangerous places.

The wife’s call to the city about the “body rub establishments” prompted a surprise visit by Richmond bylaw officers.

In response, two massage parlour workers decided to speak out to defend the safety of the environment in which they work.

Massage parlours are easy targets to blame when men cheat on their wives, said Amanda (not her real name) and that adds to the stigma around her work.

She questions whether someone who is cheating on their wife at a massage parlour isn’t cheating in other ways as well.

Massage parlours offer protection to their employees, for example, by having an on-site manager who will ban anyone who’s aggressive or intoxicated.

“Any sign of that and they get asked to leave,” said Amanda.

Amanda’s colleague Candy (also not her real name) said she’s never met anyone working in a massage parlour who was forced to be there, and no one she’s worked with has been under-aged.

But what she does see is crime targeted toward sex workers working alone in condos.

Just a few weeks ago, a friend of Candy’s, working in a condo, was viciously assaulted and had her money and computer stolen.

The current federal laws and municipal bylaws drive some sex workers to work alone, making them “sitting ducks” for predators, explained Clancey.

Immigration prohibitions on sex work brought in by the Conservative government, led by Stephen Harper, in 2012 was in reaction to a widespread narrative that women were being trafficked in Canada for sex work, said Clancey.

In order to stop this supposed human trafficking, the law purported to protect foreign nationals from being exploited, but the opposite happened: now when foreign nationals – who might be international students or someone whose tourist visa has lapsed - are caught doing sex work, they are deported, so going to police over an assault is out of the question.

Human trafficking convictions in Canada are few and far between. While Statistics Canada show police reported more than 1,000 human trafficking charges between 2006 and 2018, a recent academic study showed that there were only 92 human trafficking charges before the courts during this period across Canada, of which only 45 ended up with a conviction.

(This was a study published in 2020 by Dr. Hayli Millar and Dr. Tamara O'Doherty titled "Canadian Human Trafficking Prosecutions and Principles of Fundamental Justice: A Contradiction in Terms?")

Of these cases, seven were cross-border trafficking, one related to sex trafficking, five related to (non-sexual) labour trafficking and one (which was dismissed) was an arranged marriage.

Clancey said this is SWAN’s experience as well whereby they see a trafficking case once every two to three years.

“If there’s only that many cases going through, either the police and other criminal justice personnel aren’t doing their jobs very well, given the money that’s thrown at this issue, or perhaps human trafficking is just not as pervasive as we’re led to believe in society,” Clancey said.

The prevailing narrative that sex workers are trafficked allows the public to equate prostitution with trafficking, rather than addressing labour laws needed to protect them from violence and other crimes.

“Because it’s the only conversation that happens, politicians, councillors, the general public, faith-based organizations… they’ve come to this point they cannot conceptualize these women as anything else but trafficked victims,” Clancey said.

And “society’s uncritical consumption of this narrative” stops the public from seeing the real dangers sex workers face: violence and deportation.

Getting rid of the immigration law would mean sex workers wouldn’t be afraid to report violence because they wouldn’t have the threat of deportation hanging over their heads.

“The message would go out: these women are not sitting ducks, they’re not disposable women in society, if you perpetuate violence against them, you cannot do that with impunity,” Clancey said. “But the women being so criminalized as they are now, that cannot happen and these predators know that.”

Furthermore, it’s easier to talk about trafficking than reconcile the fact that sex work takes place in every community.

“It gives society a way to reconcile their discomfort with the sex trade,” Clancey said. “Because when people think (sex workers) are being forced, they think ‘that’s why these women are involved.’”

To understand they aren’t forced into sex work requires “more exploration and examination” from the public and municipalities, to say “if they’re not trafficked, what can I do to support them?”

Fewer raids by Richmond police: SWAN

Clancey credits the Richmond RCMP for changing their tune on trafficking. After taking part in a national anti-trafficking sting operation, Operation Northern Spotlight in 2015, they scaled back their “raids and rescues” after SWAN spent time educating them on the harm these raids were doing.

In fact, Candy said, when police come to the massage parlour where she works, they assure the employees not to be scared, that they are there for security reasons.

In addition to removing the fear of deportation by abolishing the immigration law, decriminalizing sex work would provide sex workers access to labour laws, something all other workers in Canada are afforded, Clancey said.

Municipal bylaws also play a part in scaring sex workers from working in legitimate businesses.

A contentious point is the fact employees have to register with the city, as the women who work in massage parlours don’t want their name in any registry, fearful it will come out in their future careers that they’ve worked in a massage parlour, given the stigma associated with such work, Clancey explained.

But city spokesperson Clay Adams said the city doesn’t regulate sex work – that falls under federal laws. Rather, the city will do ad-hoc inspections of body rub businesses, like they do of all businesses, to make sure they’re compliant with bylaws.

This includes making sure there are no locking doors, there are translucent windows into rooms and employees are wearing clothing from the neck to the knee and with sleeves below the elbows.

But, he added, inspections are done without being disrespectful or intimidating to staff and is simply to ensure the health and safety of employees and compliance to bylaws.

While this may be the city’s motivation, Clancey reports sex workers do feel intimidated by bylaw officers.

Amanda said her work at the Richmond massage parlour entails “erotic massages,” which she said is akin to working in a strip club.

She has a message for Richmond residents about women working in massage parlours: “Be kind to people because everyone has their own way to provide for themselves.”

For her part, Candy said working in a massage parlour is a job for her to support her family.

“We’re literally making our income in a way we choose – like everyone else,” Amanda added.