Edmonton should continue regulating body rub centres, report says

The City of Edmonton will continue to license body rub centres and massage parlours if city councillors agree to recommendations in a report released Thursday. 

Council asked the city to look at exit strategy after criticism from some residents

The city created its body rub centres task force in 2014 to help improve safety and working conditions for practitioners. (Natasha Riebe/CBC)

The City of Edmonton will continue to license body rub centres and massage parlours if city councillors agree to recommendations in a report released Thursday. 

The report, prepared by consultants and based on surveys, interviews, research and studies, found few merits in the city abandoning the process. 

The consultants found that the majority of 70 participants involved in the review, including practitioners, owners, managers and community stakeholders, said they support licensing.

"Ninety-three per cent of those who completed the survey said they felt safer in a licensed body rub centre compared to working outside of a licensed centre," the report says. 

"All point to the many safety, health, social and quality of life benefits of licensing body rub centres and practitioners."

Council asked administration to explore the benefits of exiting from the licensing process within five years, after criticism from some members of the public. 

Coun. Ben Henderson said the issue goes back to at least 2008. 

"As distasteful as this is — and nobody wanted to condone it — at some point we had to recognize it wasn't within the city's power to stop it," Henderson said in an interview Thursday. "All we would end up doing was driving it underground."

The city had few tools to deal with complaints and disorder reported by people in neighbourhoods where body rub centres were located. 

"When you drive things like these underground, there's an inherent seediness that just gets exacerbated," Henderson said. 

The city created the body rub centres task force in 2014 to help assess and improve working conditions and guide practitioners and owners in safer practices. 

It made 26 recommendations, all of which have been implemented, the city says in its synopsis to the report. 

"Many resulted in improvements that enhance safety for those working in licensed body rub centres," the report says. 

Henderson noted that the task force was created to make sure workers weren't being abused and were given information on how to leave the trade if they wanted.

Coun. Scott McKeen said the task force helps make the industry safer for sex-trade workers who are "extremely vulnerable to violence and death."  

McKeen said despite the success of the task force, council continued to hear complaints from a few people.

"People kept showing up at committees, accusing us of pimping out young women in body rub parlours," he said. "I think it was hard for councillors to keep hearing this." 

"It's an uncomfortable issue for all of us, because I think there is exploitation."

Regulating body rub centres will help reduce victimization, he noted.

"They work in that ugly middle ground where morality is challenged, our pragmatism is challenged and we have to throw up our hands and say, 'Well, this is the best we can do right now.' "

Coun. Jon Dziadyk told CBC he's heard differing opinions on the issue of body rub centres and plans to head into the committee discussions with an open mind. 

"I have received many different perspectives on this and I am going to keep an open mind," Dziadyk said in an email.  "It is definitely a divisive topic, but it is important for the city to confront the issue. I look forward to the discussion at committee next week."

The 125-page report, prepared by Tania Kajner Consulting and Zenev and Associates, Diversity and Inclusion Consultants, will be discussed at the community and public services committee on Wednesday. 

The research team looked at how five other Canadian cities deal with the issue.

Montreal, Vancouver, Toronto and Calgary currently license body rub centres and Regina is in the early phase of introducing licensing, the report says.