Editor's column: Listen to the experts regarding Richmond's sex industry

Nothing like sex, drugs and rock and roll to get folks setting their hair on fire. Well, at least the first two still tend to spark a reaction — although, maybe not like they used to.

Twenty years ago, the Richmond News probably would not have had, on its front page, a photo of a proud sex worker, drinking tea at her kitchen table, looking directly into the camera, challenging the city to make policy changes to help those in her industry.

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In fact, the last time we had a photo of a sex worker on our front page was in 2002. It showed the classic, woman in a tight dress and heels standing on a street corner. Her face turned away from the camera. That image accompanied a story I had written, following the raid on what at the time was referred to as a “bawdy house.” Such a raid in itself wouldn’t have warranted a front page, but this story took a turn.

I had just started working at the News as a freelancer when we heard the police were holding a press conference about the raid — but the News wasn’t invited. (That’s another column.) Anyway, this had me scrambling for other sources. After stumbling around awhile, I learned that the women working at the house were all from Korea, and were in Canada without proper documentation. In a bit of a Hail Mary, I phoned the Immigration and Refugee Board’s Vancouver office. Remarkably, the communications officer not only sent me transcripts from the women’s interviews with the immigration officers, she told me one of the hearings was scheduled for the next day.

The transcripts were disturbing in so much as they showed the women’s complete vulnerability. They came to Canada on tourist visas, their passports were being held by their “manager.” None of them spoke English. They lived together in an apartment in what was presumed to be Burnaby, although they weren’t sure; they just knew it was near Metrotown. Nor did they know where Richmond was as they were driven to “the shop,” as they called it, via different routes every day.

But while the transcripts painted a troubling picture, the hearing broke my heart. There, a young woman with a hard stare, told the panel, through a translator, that she had came to Canada as a tourist but ran out of money so answered an ad to do sex work. Simple as that. No further questions.

When the panel asked her if she understood its decision to deport her for overstaying her visa, she appeared painfully bored. Then suddenly her head lolled backward. There was an awkward silence as we waited. The mask cracked and tears started rolling down the side of her face. Again, silence and a bit of throat clearly. Finally, she brought her head forward, glared back at the panel and nodded. And that was it. We were done. She would be on the next plane out.

Was she being trafficked, was she a tourist in need of money, was she a sex worker just doing the circuit? We don’t know because we never really asked, and that’s our crime.

No one wants to see women victimized, but policies do just  that when they’re not informed by the very people they are meant to protect. I’m no expert on bawdy house bylaws, but sex workers are. Until they are at the table with policy makers discussing health, safety and labour standards, this same sad story will be told, yet again, 20 years down the road.

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