Should Toronto allow more body rub parlours? New report suggests exploring end to decades-old cap
Recommendation sparks debate over sex trafficking, workers' rights at licensing committee meeting
City staff are hoping to explore raising or removing the cap on the number of city-licensed massage parlours and spas — but the move is sparking debate about sex trafficking and worker rights.
The recommendation comes in a new report by Carleton Grant, the executive director of the city's municipal licensing and standards department, and follows a more than six-month review and consultation process around the current by-laws.
In his report, Grant suggests exploring how to beef up safety requirements in the body-rub parlour bylaw. He also recommends that council give him the green light to look at the feasibility of removing the license requirements for holistic centres and practitioners, and increasing or removing the cap on the number of body rub parlours allowed in the city.
Since the rules came into force in 1975, the city has capped the number of parlours at 25.
The "adult entertainment" spaces are licensed to provide erotic massages — or, as Grant's report puts it, massages or stimulation of a client's body "by any means" for non-medical purposes.
The city's more than 380 holistic spas aren't licensed for that purpose, but that doesn't mean erotic massages aren't happening regularly, according to city staff.
"Many holistic centres currently providing unauthorized services would be better captured under the [body-rub parlour] licence category," Grant's report reads.
His comment echoes a 2017 report from Toronto's auditor general, which found more than a quarter of the city's licensed holistic centres appear to advertise erotic massages and other services that may violate city bylaws.
While the city considers ending a cap on body-rub parlours to account for that, one survivor of sex trafficking believes that approach will "proliferate" the parlours and the trafficking within their walls.
"So many women today are in a similar position to what I used to be in," said Casandra Diamond, who is now an advocate for other sex trafficking survivors through her Newmarket-based charity, BridgeNorth.
Talk of removing cap 'alarming' to sex trafficking survivor
Speaking at Tuesday's committee meeting about the time she spent within city-licensed establishments, Diamond said she witnessed acts of rape, violence, robbery, and an "overall disregard for human life."
The new recommendations to explore removing a cap on the number of parlours is "alarming," she added.
"Allowing numerous body rub parlours to just proliferate, without any sort of restriction on the number of these establishments which can exist in the city of Toronto, was quite surprising to us," echoed Barb Gosse, CEO of the Canadian Centre to End Human Trafficking, in an interview with CBC Toronto.
On a broad scale, beyond just spas and massage parlours, Toronto police say they have investigated more than 1,100 cases of sex trafficking and assisted close to 300 victims since forming a human trafficking unit five years ago.
"Not everyone who works within these establishments is being trafficked," Gosse continued, "but we know the exploitation is extensive."
Others say focusing on potential trafficking in city-licensed spas distracts from a bigger conversation around worker safety.
Speaking to the committee, Deena Ladd from the Workers' Action Centre raised concerns that focusing on trafficking could put other gainfully-employed women out of a job, and stressed the need for safety to be at the forefront of recommendations.
Several letters sent to committee chair Paul Ainslie — including one from Butterfly, the Asian and Migrant Sex Workers Support Network, and one from councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam — suggested amendments to the report's recommendations to better highlight the need for worker protection and workplace safety while the city looks at lifting the cap.
"It is important to remember that over 2,100 families will be directly affected by any changes that may arise from the by-law review," Wong-Tam wrote, noting the majority of the licensed holistic practitioners in the city are new immigrants who speak English as a second language.