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Anti-trafficking laws doing more harm than good for migrant sex workers, report says

Wednesday, October 27, 2021 @ 9:35 AM | By Ian Burns

A recently released report from several legal and labour experts is saying that Canada’s anti-trafficking laws, which are ostensibly aimed at protecting migrant sex workers, is having the opposite effect to what was intended and has left sex workers more open to exploitation.

The report, “Caught in the Carceral Web: Anti-Trafficking Laws and Policies and their Impact on Migrant Sex Workers,” was released Oct. 25. It says that Canada’s complex web of laws constructed to target sex trafficking, which range from federal prohibitions against human trafficking in the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act (IRPA) and Criminal Code to municipal bylaws that strictly regulate businesses such as massage parlours and body rub salons, are often justified on the ground they protect migrant women from human trafficking but it often leads to migrant sex workers being targeted through surveillance, racial profiling and even arrest and deportation.

Judy Fudge, a report co-author and LIUNA Enrico Henry Mancinelli Professor in Global Labour Issues at McMaster University, called deportation a “strange way to protect people who are vulnerable to exploitation.”

“These laws and policies make migrant sex workers more susceptible to poor working conditions, exploitation, predation, racism and ill health,” said Fudge, who also previously taught at Osgoode Hall Law School.

This tight web of laws means migrant sex workers are less likely to report crimes perpetrated against them and to take steps to avoid law enforcement, the report said. This means they are increasingly susceptible to targeted violence by predators who know they have no effective recourse due to the vulnerability of their legal status and criminalization of their work. And the immigration regulations prohibiting migrants without permanent residence from working in the sex industry is said to be particularly bad because it is unaccountable, since immigration enforcement matters are adjudicated as administrative matters and lack due process protections, despite the severe impact of the threat of detention and deportation.

The authors also said a review of provincial anti-human trafficking laws and municipal bylaws uncovers no evidence that they protect immigrant women from trafficking or migrant sex workers from exploitation either. Report co-author Vincent Wong, a lawyer and PhD candidate at Osgoode Hall, noted the City of Toronto pivoted its municipal bylaw enforcement in 2012 towards human trafficking, health and safety and crime prevention.

“Under this pivot, municipal ticketing and licensing exclusions are seen as a key tool in making it unfeasible for body rub centres and massage parlours to operate economically,” he said. “But many tickets starting in 2012 were for banal infractions which really have no rational connection to combating the labour exploitation that undergirds trafficking.”

To that end, the reports’ authors have put forward a number of recommendations, including repeal of all sex work-specific criminal offences; ensuring that Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) is never involved in anti-trafficking investigations and raids; repeal of municipal bylaws which target sex work or the adult entertainment industry (such as strip clubs and massage parlours); and reallocating human trafficking resources to settlement, health, legal and social services for migrant workers and other groups who are most at risk of experiencing labour exploitation.

Fudge said repealing these laws and policies is not a silver bullet for ending human trafficking, but would reduce the harmful impact they have on migrant sex workers and would also allow government to focus on developing laws and policies which address coercion and exploitation.

“We need to pay attention to the harm Canada’s current approach to human trafficking causes to the migrant sex workers that it is supposed to protect,” she said.

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