Butterfly effect

Migrant sex workers' group aims to counter myths of "rescue industry"


Bad enough that they’re isolated by race, culture and language and, worse, stigmatized by a false human trafficking narrative, but they’re also endangered unjustly by the Harper government’s anti-prostitution laws.

Now those working legally in Canada say they’re being further victimized, dealing with constant police harassment, illegal detention and invasion of privacy. 

“It’s wrong to assume that all Asian sex workers are here illegally,” Elene Lam insists over the telephone from Ottawa. “One woman who is legal was arrested four times in a week. In a week!”

Lam is the face of Butterfly, the Asian and Migrant Sex Workers Network, established last fall to advocate for the rights of Asian women in the trade. 

The group’s mission includes countering the myths that Lam maintains have been perpetuated by the so-called “rescue industry,” which along with Christian Evangelical groups dominated the parliamentary hearings last fall on Bill C-36, the Harper government’s Protection Of Communities And Exploited Persons Act.

“The voice of Asian and migrant sex workers has been missing from all this,” Lam says, explaining why it was necessary to launch Butterfly. 

Unlike most other sex workers, they’re being persecuted by a combination of municipal police forces, Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) officers and even bylaw authorities, who raid massage parlours and other workplaces, demand their documentation and even collect personal information such as their contacts.

This year two significant police operations have swept up migrant sex workers.

The first, conducted in April by a much-beefed-up RCMP Human Trafficking National Coordination Centre, did indeed break up an alleged nation-wide ring that was exploiting foreign sex workers.

The second, however, was carried out last month in Ottawa after neighbourhood complaints prompted local police, in conjunction with CBSA and bylaw officers, to “inspect” 20 locations including massage parlours. That, despite the Supreme Court’s landmark Bedford decision, which struck down as unconstitutional three of Canada’s many laws pertaining to prostitution, stipulating that “public nuisance” should never trump the safety of sex workers.

No human trafficking was uncovered. Only bylaw fines were imposed. However, 11 “foreign nationals” were deported on work permit violations.

“Some women asked for warrants, but the police just came in and searched their rooms anyway, even if it violates their rights,” says Lam. “They can’t protect themselves.”

Frédérique Chabot of POWER (Prostitutes of Ottawa/Gatineau Work, Educate and Resist) compares the situation to what is happening in Norway and Sweden, where the so-called “Nordic model” of criminalizing clients has driven sex work underground. “People in government have used feminist and human rights rhetoric to facilitate anti-immigration and anti-sex work enforcement and sentiment,” she tells NOW. 

The government’s anti-prostitution laws are “continuing to build a relationship between police, CBSA and bylaw [enforcers]. They’re using every tool they can to bust people.”

But even before the new law was introduced, police had been intimidating legal sex workers. 

In early 2014, in a nationwide police operation dubbed Northern Spotlight, plainclothes officers supposedly targeting traffickers posed as clients and, in the words of sex workers, bullied them as they pretended to rescue them.

For Asian sex workers, who may not speak English and have no reason to trust police, these recent warrant-less incursions into their homes and workplaces are especially frightening. 

Lam says, “We see a kind of racial profiling, so this is very problematic. Even when women have [legal immigration] status, there is a lot of abuse. They are being detained their personal information is being taken.”

In May, a survey of Asian sex workers in Toronto and Vancouver by the Supporting Women’s Alternatives Network (SWAN) revealed that 95 per cent of respondents never seek help from law enforcement – even if they are experiencing violence, abuse, harassment or exploitation. In Toronto, not a single respondent trusted the police.

“Nobody calls the cops, even though they’re getting robbed and assaulted. And clearly they’re correct not to call the police, because it identifies certain places for the police to visit,” says Chabot.

Asian sex workers here illegally are more easily targeted, stigmatized and terrorized. Meanwhile, their legal co-workers are getting caught up in the raids and prevented from earning a living.

“Yes, some women might be working in exploitative situations, but how does it help to criminalize or arrest them?” Lam demands. “What police are doing is making it more difficult to get the support they need.

“Asian and migrant sex workers are always being used to push the rescue model. Now we can show a different story and show the harms of enforcement and the anti-trafficking discourse.”

Concludes Chabot: “[These arrests are] all really nicely packaged for the public, but the reality is much darker. There’s no such thing as a war on sex work without a war on sex workers – and this is what all this looks like.”

news@nowtoronto.com | @nowtoronto

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