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Newmarket council accused of being 'racist' against Asian workers over proposed body rub parlour bylaw

Council upset with accusations, says bylaw needed to rid town of sex trade 'operating fairly openly'
June 21, 2021
Lisa Queen

A meeting on Newmarket’s proposed body rub parlour bylaw got touchy amid accusations the policy would be racist against Asian workers.

While some public speakers at the June 16 meeting warned the proposed bylaw could hurt massage parlour employees, even if unintentionally, a couple of deputants went further by suggesting the policy is racist and hate-motivated.

Council is expected to approve the bylaw June 21.

Much of the debate centred around the town’s intention to create a personal wellness establishment category for businesses providing massages.

The bylaw would require workers to have Canadian accreditation for the services they are providing.

Understanding that many employees have learned their trade in foreign countries or on the job, the town is willing to work with them to ensure they have the skills needed to provide the services, manager of regulatory services, Flynn Scott, said.

The town’s bylaw is also fundamentally aimed at ensuring sexual services aren’t provided, he said.

Some critics of the bylaw said the legitimate personal wellness industry is dominated by Asian workers, many of whom don’t have the money or English-language skills needed to acquire accreditation.

They could lose their jobs or be forced to work underground under the new bylaw, they argue.

The bylaw would also create more dangerous conditions for sex workers, critics said.

A couple of speakers, including Elene Lam, executive director of Butterfly, the Asian and Migrant Sex Workers Support Network, went further.

She asked if the town was making the decision to "promote racism and hate" against massage parlours, particularly those run by and employing Asian residents.

She suggested the bylaw would be geared to middle-class, white workers who speak English and can afford to take college courses to secure accreditation.

She asked how the town could be so "racist and cruel" to pass the bylaw and urged council to stop incorrectly saying sex workers are all victims of human trafficking to "impose your racist, anti-Asian, anti-sex worker agenda".

Jessie Tang, co-executive director, Chinese Canadian National Council Toronto Chapter, said the bylaw could be "racist" and "anti-Asian".

Mayor John Taylor and several councillors were upset with the remarks.

"I’ve been doing this for a long time and I think that was the most disrespectful deputation I’ve ever witnessed," Taylor said.

While he sympathizes with concerns regarding workers' low-income levels and lack of English-language proficiency in securing accreditation, he said those issues should be dealt with by federal and provincial officials, not at the municipal level.

Coun. Victor Woodhouse said while the town appreciates the impact bylaws can have on residents and businesses, it must adopt policies in the best interests of the community.

"To simply paint us with an anti-Asian brush because of this legislation, to me, is completely wrong," he said. "This is about reflecting community values and ensuring the safety of everyone, particularly workers."

The town is focused on getting rid of the sex trade "operating fairly opening here in Newmarket", Deputy Mayor Tom Vegh said, adding foreign-born workers in many professions have to prove they meet Canadian standards.