Toronto

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

As Ontario gets set to debate a bill aimed to combat human trafficking, several legal advocates, community organizations and sex worker groups are sounding the alarm on the proposed legislation.

Solicitor general says legislation meant to protect trafficking victims, not target sex workers

Arguing against the bill will be a host of advocacy groups including Butterfly Asian and Migrant Sex Workers Project, HIV Legal Network and No Pride in Policing Coalition, which held a joint news conference Tuesday highlighting their concerns and calling for all political parties to reject the proposed legislation.

As Ontario gets set to debate a bill aimed to combat human trafficking, several legal advocates, community organizations and sex worker groups are sounding the alarm on the proposed legislation, saying it will only endanger already-marginalized sex workers by expanding police powers and lead to further targeting of poor and racialized groups.

The Combating Human Trafficking Act, or Bill 251, first introduced in February by Ontario Solicitor General Sylvia Jones, is set to go before the province's standing committee on justice policy this week.

Arguing against the bill at the hearings will be a host of advocacy groups, including Butterfly Asian and Migrant Sex Workers Project, HIV Legal Network and No Pride in Policing Coalition, which held a joint news conference Tuesday highlighting their concerns and calling for all political parties to reject the proposed legislation.

"We have seen an unprecedented wave of support across North America to defund the police and invest in real support for our communities," said author and activist Robyn Maynard. She said on the heels of widespread calls to limit police powers, the bill in fact does the opposite.

"Bill 251 further endangers Black, Asian and sex working communities because it expands the power, scope and funding for the policing of our communities under the guise of protection."

If passed, the legislation would require hotels to maintain a registry of every guest who checks in, including their name and address, and police officers and First Nations constables to more easily access a hotel's registry if "there are reasonable grounds" to believe that information might help to locate a victim of human trafficking or someone at risk of trafficking.

It would also allow inspectors warrantless entry into any place not classified as a dwelling, to review records or question individuals. Fines for non-compliance, including refusing to answer questions potentially connected to an investigation, are subject to fines of $50,000 for individuals or $100,000 for corporations. 

Anti-human trafficking efforts need to focus on 'root causes'

"We know that law enforcement-led anti-human trafficking efforts in Ontario target poor, young, racialized men and women — often migrant sex workers — for surveillance, arrest and prosecution without meaningfully addressing the root causes of human trafficking," said Sandra Ka Hon Chu of the HIV Legal Network, speaking at a news conference Tuesday morning.

"We urge the government to take a human rights-based approach that centres labour rights, migrant rights, and sex workers' rights." 

Chu pointed to past campaigns against human trafficking, such as Operation Northern Spotlight, involving the RCMP, Ontario Provincial Police and other police forces. She said officers posing as clients targeted sex workers in their work places during the operation.

Another campaign, led by Hamilton police, aimed at protecting potentially vulnerable woman in fact saw women arrested for immigration infractions and bylaw crackdowns.

Asked Tuesday if she would address the concerns raised by the groups, the solicitor general maintained the goal of the bill is to crack down on the trafficking of young people, not to target sex workers. The average age of trafficking victims, she said, is 13. 

"We know that 40 per cent of human trafficking that's happening in Canada is happening right here in Ontario," Jones told reporters.

As for the groups' concerns, she said: "I would suggest that they need to carefully review how the legislation is being proposed. We've been very clear that the changes we're bringing forward are very focused on that young age cohort.

"This is not about an adult who has chosen to have sex work as their profession. This is about young people who are recruited into human trafficking ... and are literally used and abused until they can't function anymore." 

A spokesperson for Jones told CBC News the government engaged with various stakeholders to develop the bill, including anti-human-trafficking front-line service providers, community organizations, members of the Human Trafficking Lived Experience Roundtable, as well as sex workers' rights advocates.

The Combating Human Trafficking Act, or Bill 251, first introduced in February by Ontario Solicitor General Sylvia Jones, is set to go before the province's standing committee on justice policy this week. (CBC)

'Law enforcement as a source of repression, not 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 maintain registers as well. They point out that trafficking can happen not only at hotels but at other types of temporary accommodations as well.

But Chu says in her experience speaking with sex workers, including a 2019 survey she co-authored, anti-human trafficking initiatives have been seen as "pretext to monitor and interrogate sex workers and discourage them from working." 

"One sweeping commonality amongst 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 the Butterfly network's executive director, Elene Lam, surveying massage and holistic practitioners found a similar theme. Nearly half of respondents said they experienced violence in their workplace, but less than seven per cent reported these incidents to law enforcement. 

Elene Lam, from Butterfly Asian and Migrant Sex Workers Support Network, says 'Bill 251 not only harms sex workers, migrants, Indigenous, Black, Asian and other people of colour, it affects everyone. If you do not want law enforcement to enter your place at any time, please say No to Bill 251.' (CBC)

That's because 60 per cent of respondents had negative perceptions of police, the report said. Forty per cent said they felt officers did not respect them as workers and instead treated them as criminals, it said. 

More than one third of those surveyed reported that they had been abused or harassed by bylaw enforcement or police officers, with 12 per cent reporting they were physically or sexually assaulted by law enforcement officers themselves.

'I'm not a trafficked victim. I just want to work'

As a former sex worker, Indigenous lawyer Naomi Sayers echoes the concerns of the advocacy groups, saying Bill 251 conflates sex work with human trafficking, treating the two as one and the same.

"It's going to over-capture, but it's also going to over-police individuals who are not supposed to be the subject of  concern in this bill, which would be human trafficking victims," she told CBC News.

"This bill is framed as supporting victims and providing support to victims. But actually, what it ends up doing is diverting resources away from victims and human trafficking and diverts them towards the police."

"I'm not a trafficked victim. I just want to work," said Lin Chan, a sex worker quoted in the groups' news release Tuesday.

When arrested last year, Chan says police seized $7,000 — income she says she earned over a period of two months. 

"I am using my own hand and my own body to earn a living to support myself and my family," Chan said.

"Why did they arrest me and take my money when the police said they are protecting me?"

With files from Shanifa Nasser and Farrah Merali

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