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Sex worker advocates push back against attempt to rid Richmond of massage parlours

'Sex work isn’t a moral or ethical issue to be debated or outlawed, it’s a labour issue and should be treated as such": Pace Society
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A group that advocates for immigrant and migrant sex workers is pushing back against a motion to get rid of massage parlours in Richmond.

Instead of trying to shut down massage parlours in Richmond, advocates for sex workers say the city should be trying to make their work environment safer.

SWAN Vancouver, which advocates for immigrant and migrant sex workers, pushed back on Richmond city Coun. Kash Heed’s recent motion at a community safety committee to use city bylaws to close down massage parlours.

“This committee is considering imposing dangerous policies on systemically marginalized people under the guise of protection,” said SWAN Vancouver’s executive director Angela Wu in a media statement. “When you conflate sex work with trafficking, you disregard someone’s choice to earn a living by working at a massage parlour, and inaccurately paint them as victims to fulfill your moral agenda.”

In 2018, Coun. Alexa Loo asked city staff to look into the bylaws that regulate “body-rub establishments” in Richmond.

This item, however, was never dealt with in open meetings and no bylaw changes were ever brought to city council.

The Richmond News filed a freedom-of-information request to the city to ask for records pertaining to this referral but was told that all 65 pages were being withheld as they fell under policy and legal advice, “disclosure harmful to law enforcement” and “harmful to intergovernmental relations or negotiations.”

When he introduced the motion, Heed said he wanted city council to have a discussion about these businesses that he claims allow for human trafficking.

At the committee meeting, he said there’s an “incredible market… in Richmond and a demand for the services of sex-trade workers.”

Heed said one can google “massage parlours that we licence here” in Richmond that have scantily clad women advertised on them.

“You know darned well they’re not just giving regular massage therapy,” Heed said.

A researcher who specializes in occupational health and safety of sex workers, Sylvia Machat, noted evidence has “thoroughly debunked the myth that indoor sex work venues are hotspots for exploitation or human trafficking.”

“Evidence shows that many harms experienced in these workplaces are associated with the criminalization of sex work in Canada and the limitations on occupational health and safety that result from such criminalization,” she said.

Instead, the City of Richmond needs to reach out directly to sex workers to see how they could have access to occupational health services, be able to report employment standards violations and get access to the criminal justice system, Machat added.  

Mark Corrado, director of bylaws and licencing with the city, said Richmond is known for having the most “restrictive” body-rub licence requirements in the province.

This includes regulating clothing, age, locks, insurance bonds, lighting and criminal record checks.

In SWAN’s media statement, Kit Rothschild with the sex worker advocacy agency Pace Society, said legislation has never had the ability to make sex work disappear.

“Trying to rid your community of body rub parlours will only drive that work further underground and risk the safety of those simply trying to make a living,” Rothschild said.

“Sex workers are members of the community at large whether or not you approve of the work they do. Sex work isn’t a moral or ethical issue to be debated or outlawed, it’s a labour issue and should be treated as such.”

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