Why some sex worker advocates say Ontario’s anti-trafficking bill will do more harm than good

As Ontario prepares to debate a bill to fight human trafficking, several lawyers, community organizations and sex worker groups are sounding the alarm bells on the bill, saying that ‘It will only endanger already marginalized sex workers by expanding the powers of the police and lead to further targeting of poor and racialized groups.

The Tackling Human Trafficking Act, or Bill 251, first introduced in February by Ontario Attorney General Sylvia Jones, is due to be referred this week to the Standing Committee on Justice Policy in Province.

During the hearings, a host of advocacy groups opposed the bill, including the Butterfly Asian and Migrant Sex Workers Project, the HIV Legal Network and the No Pride in Policing Coalition, which held a joint press conference on Tuesday to highlight their concerns and call on all political parties. reject the proposed legislation.

“We have seen an unprecedented wave of support across North America to dismantle the police and invest in real support for our communities,” said author and activist Robyn Maynard. She said that following widespread calls to limit police powers, the bill actually does the opposite.

“Bill 251 further endangers Black, Asian and sex work communities as it expands the power, reach and funding for policing in our communities under the guise of protection.

If passed, the law would require hotels to keep a register of all guests who check in, including their name and address, and police and First Nations officers to more easily access a hotel’s registry. ‘there are “reasonable grounds” to believe that this information could help locate a victim of human trafficking or a person at risk of being trafficked.

It would also allow inspectors to enter any place not classified as accommodation without a warrant, examine files or question people. Fines for non-compliance, including refusal to answer questions potentially related to an investigation, are punishable by fines of $ 50,000 for individuals or $ 100,000 for businesses.

Anti-trafficking efforts must focus on ‘root causes’

“We know that law enforcement efforts in Ontario target poor, young and racialized men and women – often migrant sex workers – for surveillance, arrest and prosecution without significantly addressing the root causes of human trafficking, ”said Sandra Ka Hon Chu of the HIV Legal Network, speaking at a press conference Tuesday morning.

“We urge the government to take a human rights-based approach that centers labor rights, migrant rights and sex worker rights.”

Chu referred to past anti-human trafficking campaigns, such as Operation Northern Spotlight, involving the RCMP, OPP and other police services. She said agents posing as clients targeted sex workers at their workplace during the operation.

Another campaign, led by Hamilton Police, to protect potentially vulnerable women actually saw women arrested for immigration and law enforcement offenses.

When asked Tuesday if she would respond to concerns raised by the groups, the Auditor General argued that the purpose of the bill was to crack down on trafficking in young people, not to target sex workers. The average age of victims of trafficking, she said, is 13.

“We know that 40 percent of the human trafficking that happens in Canada occurs right here in Ontario,” Jones told reporters.

Regarding the concerns of the groups, she said, “I would say they need to take a careful look at how the bill is being proposed. We have been very clear that the changes we are proposing are very focused on this cohort of young people.

“This is not about an adult who has chosen sex work as a profession. These are young people who are recruited into human trafficking … and who are literally used and abused until then. that they can no longer function. ”

A spokesperson for Jones told CBC News the government worked with various stakeholders to develop the bill, including frontline anti-trafficking service providers, community organizations, table members. round on the lived experience of human trafficking, as well as sex worker rights advocates. .

The Tackling Human Trafficking Act, or Bill 251, first introduced in February by Ontario Attorney General Sylvia Jones, is due to be referred this week to the Standing Committee on Justice Policy in Province. (CBC)

“ The application of the law as a source of repression and not of protection ”

Other supporters of the bill, including the opposition NDP, have meanwhile called for it to be expanded to require short-term rentals such as Airbnbs to also maintain records. They point out that trafficking can occur not only in hotels, but also in other types of temporary accommodation.

But Chu says that in her experience speaking with female sex workers, including a 2019 survey she co-authored, anti-human trafficking initiatives were seen as “a pretext for monitoring and questioning. sex workers and discourage them from working “.

“One thing in common among all the sex workers we interviewed was their experience of law enforcement as a source of repression, not protection,” she said.

A 2018 report by Butterfly Network Executive Director Elene Lam, the survey of massage and holistic practitioners found a similar theme. Almost half of the respondents said they had been victims of violence in their workplace, but less than 7% reported these incidents to law enforcement.

Elene Lam, Butterfly Asian and Migrant Sex Workers Support Network, says: “Bill 251 does not only harm sex workers, migrants, indigenous people, blacks, Asians and other people of color, it affects everyone. If you don’t want law enforcement entering your home at all times, please say no to Bill 251. ” (CBC)

That’s because 60% of respondents had negative perceptions of the police, according to the report. Forty percent said they felt officers did not respect them as workers and instead treated them like criminals, he said.

More than a third of those surveyed said they had been abused or harassed by law enforcement or police officers, and 12% said they had been physically or sexually assaulted by law enforcement officials. themselves.

“I am not a victim of trafficking. I just wanna work ‘

As a former sex worker, Indigenous lawyer Naomi Sayers echoes concerns from advocacy groups, saying Bill 251 links sex work with human trafficking, treating the two as one. nobody.

“It’s going to over-capture, but it’s also going to override the individuals who are not supposed to be the subject of concern in this bill, who are said to be victims of human trafficking,” she told CBC News. .

“This bill aims to support victims and provide support to victims. But in reality, it ends up diverting resources from victims and human trafficking and diverting them to the police.”

“I am not a victim of trafficking. I just want to work,” said Lin Chan, a sex worker quoted in the group’s press release Tuesday.

When arrested last year, Chan says police seized $ 7,000 – income she says she earned over a two-month period.

“I use my own hand and my own body to make a living and support myself and my family,” Chan said.

“Why did they arrest me and take my money when the police said they were protecting me?”

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