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Ontario’s anti-human trafficking initiative | Elene Lam, Anne Margaret Deck, Sandra Ka Hon Chu

Thursday, March 26, 2020 @ 12:00 PM | By Elene Lam, Anne Margaret Deck, Sandra Ka Hon Chu

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Sandra Ka Hon Chu
On March 6, the Ontario government announced an investment of $307 million over five years in an alleged strategy to “combat human trafficking and end sexual exploitation across the country.” The unprecedented scale of the financial investment in the strategy, which includes funding for community-based services and the bolstering of misguided law enforcement efforts, coincides with some of the most comprehensive budget cuts and privatization of services in Ontario. This strategy will do profound harm to sex workers, while failing to meaningfully address human trafficking.

To receive funding, approved agencies must maintain practice and policy that aligns with the Ford government’s blatant anti-sex work position, which is based on biased and false information about sex workers and their trade — namely that their work is illegitimate and that they are all victims of human trafficking. Many of their arguments are based on unfounded data, such as the rampant and false claims that 13 is the average age of entry into sex work, or that the majority of sex workers do not “choose” to participate in sex work. These myths not only promote disempowering stereotypes of people working in the sex industry, but they embolden police and other institutions to criminalize sex workers and their industry through increased monitoring, surveillance and racial and social profiling.

As a result, community-based services for survivors of human trafficking often conflate sex work with human trafficking and contribute to moral panic by positioning all sex workers as sexually exploited. Support services that receive funding adopt an approach that requires their service-users to “exit” or abstain from entering the sex industry. The practical application of this approach impedes sex workers from receiving the services they need until and unless they identify themselves as a victim of human trafficking. This, in turn, falsely inflates statistics of human trafficking victims. It also corrodes the relationship service providers have with the vulnerable communities they are meant to serve: a sex worker may not wish to leave the industry and be forced to quit working and lose their livelihood, so they may not disclose their sex work or they may avoid service providers altogether.

A strategy that fails to distinguish between human trafficking and sex work will never reduce violence and human trafficking. It may, however, perversely contribute to violence against sex workers and additional violations of their human rights.

To assume that all sex workers are victims of human trafficking denies the agency and sexual autonomy of sex workers. Sex workers are consequently subject to increased surveillance by law enforcement under the guise of “rescue,” marginalizing and isolating sex workers and disproportionately affecting sex workers who are Indigenous, Asian, black, transgender and/or non-binary, and im/migrant (shorthand for immigrant or migrant) and/or undocumented. In particular, human trafficking laws are employed to justify raids on sex workers’ workspaces, which sex workers have often experienced to be profoundly stressful and indeed traumatizing. In a 2018 survey of 61 holistic practitioners’ experiences with police in Toronto, more than one-third reported harassment or abuse by bylaw enforcement or police officers, and 12 per cent of respondents had experienced physical or sexual abuse at the hands of law enforcement officers

Violence and abuse exist in the sex industry, as in other industries without labour and other legal protections. But criminalization hampers sex workers’ access to services and to legal recourse, rendering them vulnerable to exploitation and abuse — a reality recognized by a growing number of human rights organizations, UN bodies and courts as well as the Supreme Court of Canada. In fact, sex workers are on the front lines of anti-human trafficking efforts because of their historical fight against labour or sexual exploitation as workers.

To effectively tackle human trafficking, we must adopt an approach based on evidence and not ideology. There is already infrastructure in place, including in the anti-violence against women and shelter systems, to support people experiencing violence and other abuse. Exclusively devoting resources for trafficking victims when many people don’t identify as such merely siphons resources from other more effective community and social services.

An end to human trafficking requires the recognition and involvement of sex workers in our communities. Repealing sex work-specific criminal laws and immigration laws, and reviewing municipal bylaws and policies that authorize all manners of unwarranted law enforcement surveillance, are first steps to effectively addressing exploitation in the sex industry. Reallocating funds from ideologically driven anti-human trafficking programs towards those that enhance worker safety and labour conditions and provide emergency income supports is also essential, especially at a time when sex workers’ livelihoods have been severely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. All of this must be done with the meaningful participation of sex workers.

Investing in a false sense of moral activism may be less complicated than confronting poverty, insecure housing and poor or unequal access to social and health-care services that make people more vulnerable to abuse, but it only contributes to harm. The Ford government must do better.

Elene Lamis the executive director of Butterfly: Asian and Migrant Sex Worker Support Network. Anne Margaret Deck is vice-chair of the board at Maggie’s Toronto Sex Workers’ Action Project, board member of Safespace London and a law student at Western Law. She holds a bachelor of arts degree in fine art from the University of Toronto. Sandra Ka Hon Chu is the director of research and advocacy at the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network and holds a BA in sociology from the University of British Columbia, an LL.B. from the University of Toronto and an LL.M. from Osgoode Hall Law School of York University. The authors thank Jelena Vermilion, co-chair and educational director of the Sex Workers' Action Network (SWAN) of Waterloo Region and executive director of the Sex Workers' Action Program (SWAP) Hamilton, for her contributions to the piece.

Photo credit / Andrei Orlov ISTOCKPHOTO.COM

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