Racism and Prejudice Have No Place in City Hall – A Message to Toronto City Council

Last month, representatives from holistic practitioner, sex worker and human rights organizations gathered in Committee Room 1 at Toronto City Hall to make deputations to the Municipal and Licensing Standards Committee about the bylaws governing holistic practitioners and body-rub providers. The meeting was prompted by a study of licensing for holistic centres and body-rub parlours, a study that its originators claimed was motivated by a concern about trafficking in these venues.

When we first walked in, we heard one person gleefully remark: “I should bring a gurney in here and have a massage afterwards. These are all Chinese massage parlour workers!” His comment was prescient and reflective of the hostile environment to come. As he observed, many of the deputants were Asian women and spoke English as a second language. Some of us were affiliated with sex worker groups. And with few exceptions, we all described the ways in which restrictive bylaws allow abuses by bylaw enforcement officers—at the expense of occupational health and safety and the labour and human rights of people working in body-rub parlours and holistic centres.

One deputant, who had met with over 1000 massage parlour workers, described some enforcement officers’ behaviour as demeaning and dehumanizing, including the use of derogatory comments and male officers watching female workers as they dressed. She also shared disturbing accounts of racial profiling, with East Asian women being singled out for increased questioning. This excessive and abusive enforcement has sown distrust and fear among workers, who generally avoid reporting abuses and isolate themselves from both city services and law enforcement protection—conditions that enable exploitation and trafficking to occur.

But this only prompted disbelief among committee members. Descriptions of bylaw enforcement officers’ racism and misogyny were brushed aside. One councillor seemingly refused to accept the submission of a deputant challenging the assumption that restrictive regulatory frameworks, including stringent licensing conditions and heavy enforcement, are effective at combating exploitation. As she noted, excessively strict conditions on where, when and how people—in any industry—can go about their work push people away from licensed regimes, either because workers cannot meet the narrow licensing criteria or because workers avoid regulatory conditions that actually undermine their safety and rights.

Other deputants were treated with belligerence. Councillor Jim Karygiannis was incredulous when a deputant expressed himself in English, after deputing with the assistance of an interpreter. Twice, the same councillor stood directly in front of deputants who criticized the bylaws and openly glared. He further demanded that a representative of holistic practitioners provide the name of a parlour that had been targeted by enforcement officers, even though she repeatedly refused because the practitioners are afraid of retaliation. Afterward, he menacingly offered to take her on a walk to show her all the parlours in his district. Given that the integrity commissioner found that Councillor Karygiannis had acted in an “inappropriate, aggressive and intimidating manner” on two separate occasions in 2016, his behaviour was hardly surprising. Still, his threatening demeanour made it very clear that, despite his claim to be concerned about protecting vulnerable workers, he still viewed massage workers as criminals.

Notably, Councillor Karygiannis suggested that the workers in the massage parlours in his ward were providing sexual services. Since they were also Asian, he believed they were trafficked, thus conflating sex work with sex trafficking. Frustratingly, the committee members dismissed the evidence of the deputants who work directly with holistic practitioners and body-rub providers in favour of a deputant who had not had direct contact with practitioners and advocated for more enforcement to identify human trafficking—and who indicated that her sole source of information about the extent of human trafficking in body-rub and holistic health centres was law enforcement.

The outright denial of even the potential for racism on the part of city staff was profound and could be linked to the everyday hostile racism of bylaw enforcement officers. We are all concerned about exploitation and human trafficking, but action must be based on evidence. Further alienating migrant communities is a gift to human traffickers. If the committee is genuinely interested in addressing human trafficking, it is critical that its members listen to and meaningfully consult with those directly affected by the bylaws and their enforcement, and to base policy development on evidence and not moral panic. Sadly, if the committee’s response to deputants was any indication, there is much more work to be done.

  

Sandra Ka Hon Chu, Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network

Elene Lam, Coalition Against Abuse by Bylaw Enforcement

Andrea Sterling, Maggie’s: Toronto Sex Workers Action Project

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