EDITORIALS | Stand with sex workers for decriminalisation

EDITORIAL

On January 16, 2018,  Laval Mayor Marc Demers’ bylaw to curb sex work services came into  effect. Currently, all massage parlours, strip clubs, and other erotic businesses operate in 14 zones across Laval, but are now being pushed to relocate to one small industrial zone called IA-134. Montreal similarly engages in anti-sex work crackdowns. The city has approximately 350 erotic massage parlours operating with therapeutic massage business permits. This allows the 70 per cent of Montreal’s sex workers employed by these establishments to have safer working conditions. Sex work establishments operating under such a license are subject to hefty fines for ‘misrepresentation’ of services. Quebec politicians have historically targeted sex workers and continue to do so, which especially impacts vulnerable communities such as trans, racialized, and economically disadvantaged women, among others.

In 2014 Parliament passed the federal law Bill C-36, which criminalises the purchase of sex, the advertisement of sexual services, and the receipt of material benefit from sex work. In addition, sex workers are excluded from provincial Employment Standards Legislation. Therefore, they lack recourse when facing discrimination and violence in the  workplace, as they cannot mobilize in labour unions. The Canadian Criminal Code also makes it difficult for sex workers to report instances of domestic violence, because of the possibility that their partners will be charged with “living on the avails of prostitution,” according to section 212. These factors push existing sex workers into unsafe working conditions by forcing them to work in isolation without the protection of a business, or to operate illegally to protect the anonymity of their clients.

In January 2017, the city closed down multiple businesses in Rosemont-La-Petite-Patrie due to discrepancy between the business permit and actual usage. After receiving “complaints from citizens,” borough Mayor François Croteau claimed that the presence of sex workers makes neighbourhoods more dangerous for families—a discriminatory argument used repeatedly to pass laws and initiate investigations against sex work. Sex workers’ presence does not jeopardize neighbourhood safety; instead, this stigmatization is used to justify the criminalisation of sex work, putting sex workers in danger. This belief dehumanises sex workers and implies that they are not members of families or have families of their own. Croteau’s statement suggests a distinction between citizens and sex workers.

Crackdowns to keep sex work away from residential neighbourhoods happen periodically in Montreal, especially during election cycles, as demonstrated by Denis Coderre’s re-election platform last fall. Coderre’s claim that continuous crackdowns will reduce human trafficking and the employment of minors in sex work has been applauded by those who believe criminalisation would safely regulate the industry. However, the current regulations do not ensure the working rights of sex workers or address the systemic roots of the problems Coderre associates with sex work. The three million dollar program implemented in 2016 to fight teen sex trafficking led to more arrests, but also cut $110,000 in funding from Chez Stella (an organisation dedicated to improving quality of work and life for sex workers) safety programs aimed at combating sexual exploitation.

Organizations such as Chez Stella’s urgently call for the repeal of Bill C-36 and decriminalisation of sex work and state that sex workers need “tangible services including economic security, housing and health support,” allowing them to participate in the industry on their own terms. The government of Quebec must shift its policies toward respect for the agency and needs of sex workers, ensuring that Chez Stella and similar groups have adequate funding to continue providing resources and safety programs.