(Canadian OH&S News) — Sex worker groups are condemning the police raids on massage parlours in Ottawa that have resulted in deportation orders for 11 women. The investigation inspected 20 massage parlours and body rub facilities in the city from April 27 to 29.
The Ottawa Police Service (OPS) announced on May 8 that it had detained 11 women on immigration-related matters after a joint investigation by the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA), Ottawa Bylaw Services and the Human Trafficking Unit of the OPS. All of the women appeared for admissibility and detention hearings during the week of April 27 and were subsequently issued deportation orders as they did not possess valid work permits.
Representatives from four sex worker advocacy organizations decried the police’s actions in a statement issued on May 11, which said that the threat of deportation in human trafficking investigations increases women’s vulnerability to violence and limits the ability of victims to come forward.
“Investigations under the guise of trafficking and police raids make the situation even worse. It makes people hide further underground, makes them more vulnerable to violence and endangers their safety,” Elene Lam of Butterfly, an Asian and migrant sex workers support network, said in the statement.
Executive director of Maggie’s – Toronto Sex Workers’ Action Project Jean McDonald said this poses major health and safety concerns for sex workers. “In Toronto, for instance, we’ve had a number of robberies, violent robberies and assaults on migrant sex workers, some of whom are working in massage parlours. Because they may face deportation if they come forward, they can’t make a proper report to the police.”
McDonald suggested that if police truly want to help human trafficking victims they should offer them immunity from deportation and detention and an opportunity to apply for permanent residency. This would encourage victims to report instances of abuse, she said.
“Not only will this protect women who may be involved – whether willingly or unwillingly – in the industry, it will also assist in enforcement efforts to combat trafficking.”
No charges had been laid against the 11 individuals as of May 12. The CBSA investigation is ongoing and additional immigration charges may follow, according to the OPS statement.
“Based on the investigation we conducted during the project itself, there was no immediate evidence of exploitation or human trafficking in any locations that we inspected,” said Sgt. Jeff LeBlanc of the OPS Human Trafficking Unit. The police often get complaints about massage parlours in residential neighbourhoods that are then transferred to the human trafficking unit, he said.
Eleven bylaw charges were issued for improper licensing following the investigation. Establishments must obtain business licenses and massage parlours need massage parlour licenses, according to LeBlanc. The human trafficking unit decided to partner with bylaw services because they are knowledgeable in the licensing requirements, he said.
“Obviously, the main goal is safety of the clients and the safety of the workers,” he said. Many of the establishments had doors that locked from the inside, which could pose safety risks for workers and clients, he noted.
“If this is how we are helping people, it just seems ridiculous,” said McDonald, referring to women being deported. “It really exposes the fallacy of human trafficking laws in Canada… They’re not really helping the people who may actually be facing exploitation or violence within their workplaces.”