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'Racist agenda': Proposed Newmarket body rub parlour bylaw would harm low-income Asian workers, critics say

Body rub parlours and massage parlours are not human trafficking': Butterfly executive director
June 16, 2021
Lisa Queen

A proposed Newmarket body rub parlour bylaw would discriminate against low-income, non-English-speaking Asian employees working in massage parlours, critics say.

The issue will be debated by council June 16

Migrant sex worker advocates, racial justice and human rights organizations criticize town officials who say new rules are needed to prevent human trafficking taking place at some spas.

Critics of the bylaw are concerned the town plans to bring in a new “personal wellness” category for personal service businesses that will mandate workers be trained by accredited institutions, which often have English language skills requirements.

Low-income, non-English-speaking Asian workers wouldn't be able to attend college and get the required credentials, the critics said in a press release June 15.

Although the bylaw claims an exception is available to “non-Western practice,” the critics say applying for the exemption is intimidating and believe most Asian workers wouldn’t satisfy the licensing requirement since they were trained in Asia or learned informally on the job.

Putting the licensing requirement in place will throw many employees out of work, they say.

"Massage parlour workers don’t all engage in sex work, sex work is not illegal in Canada, and most sex workers aren’t trafficked," Elene Lam, executive director of Butterfly, the Asian and Migrant Sex Workers Support Network, said.

"But the Town of Newmarket is conflating three issues and putting the lives and livelihoods of Asian migrant sex workers in danger in a time of immense anti-Asian racism and anti-sex workers racism that has resulted most recently in six deaths in Atlanta (during a shooting rampage March 16). Thousands of Asian workers in massage parlours have explicitly and repeatedly stated that they are not trafficked victims and that they want to continue working in these industries under safe and fair working conditions."

At a Newmarket meeting in May, Lam, also an adjunct lecturer at the University of Toronto’s faculty of social work, said Butterfly engages with more than 5,000 Asian workers who work in massage parlours and the sex industry in Toronto, York Region (including Newmarket) and other Ontario communities.

"As those who work closely with the community know, not all the massage parlours or body rub parlours provide sexual services," she said.

"It is extremely racist and sexist to fetishize all workers, particular those of Asian descent, by assuming all of them provide sexual services and calling the businesses brothels."

However, Lam argued people need to be respected whether they provide sexual services or not.

"Over 2,000 workers in massage parlours have said that they are not trafficked victims and that they want to continue the work," she said. "Body rub parlours and massage parlours are not human trafficking."

The town and York Regional Police don’t have evidence showing body rub parlours are related to human trafficking, Lam said.

"The fact is, most of the workers are women over 40 years old who labour in massage parlours to support themselves and their families. The claim that body rub parlours are all involved in human trafficking or sex trafficking is based on a racist and moralistic agenda, not facts."