sex workers speak out

Migrant sex workers live under constant police threat

Part 5 of a series
Photo: Michael Muraz

Immigration laws coupled with anti-prostitution laws create particular vulnerabilities for migrant sex workers. This fifth installment of a series featuring the voices of sex workers includes the stories of three women, including one who was deported from Canada, as told to Butterfly: Asian and Migrant Sex Workers Network.

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Blue, Toronto, Ontario

Blue came to Ontario from Asia so she could get a Canadian university education. She and her family knew it was an expensive choice at $45,000 a year, but it was also important.

So together they made that first year happen, despite Blue’s heavy course load and challenges in finding paid work in her new country so she could cover her costs. She was an engineering student and also needed to focus any spare time on gaining volunteer and intern experience related to her studies.

Sex work after Harper For two years, sex workers have faced tough laws, implemented by the Harper Conservatives in defiance of a Supreme Court directive not to impose dangerous conditions on prostitution. The new laws criminalize those who purchase sex (clients), those who communicate in a public place in order to sell sex (sex workers or third parties), those who carry an advertisement for sexual services (e.g., newspaper, website), and those who gain material benefit from sex work (e.g., security, drivers, receptionists, agency owners). Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government has yet to address the unconstitutional nature of the legislation.

When a financial crisis hit Asia, Blue’s family could no longer help support her. Assessing her options, Blue started work in a massage parlour, where she could have a flexible schedule, meet her financial needs, and still make time for intern opportunities.

In 2015 when police raided the massage parlour where Blue worked, things took a major turn for the worse.

Like other businesses, Canadian massage parlours operate under various regulations and laws, including many that control or prevent the sale of sexual services. Not all massage parlours offer sexual services, but any that are suspected of doing so run a constant risk of being targeted in a police raid, like the one that Blue experienced.

On that awful day, police abruptly opened the door of Blue’s service room and found her cleaning up. She was asked if she was being trafficked or controlled, and told by police that they had been carrying out an anti-trafficking investigation. She assured them she wasn’t being trafficked.

That didn’t stop police from ordering her not to move while they searched the building. Blue’s boss asked to see a search warrant and challenged police to show one or stop the search. But the police kept searching anyway. In the end, they found no evidence of illegal activity.

Blue couldn’t leave that little room for almost two hours. She was then asked for her immigration documents. She showed police her work permit, confirming her legal status. Unsatisfied, the police called the Canada Border Services Agency. While waiting for officials to arrive, three police officers continued to interrogate Blue. She felt cornered and frightened.

Blue left without ever knowing what law, if any, she had broken.

They asked her many questions about why she had come to Canada and why she worked in a massage parlour. Overwhelmed and insulted, Blue eventually started to cry. She repeated to the officers that she wasn’t doing anything illegal. When the border agency officials arrived, they continued to interrogate Blue and would not allow her to make a telephone call.

A very long two hours later, the police ordered Blue to leave the massage parlour immediately and warned her that if she returned to work there, she would be arrested and deported. Blue left without ever knowing what law, if any, she had broken.

The police raid scared Blue so much about ever having to deal with law enforcement again that rather than return to her job at the massage parlour, she decided instead to become an indoor sex worker.

She would have preferred to continue at the massage parlour, where she felt like she had more control, more supports, more agency to choose who she provided services to, and more ability to negotiate with clients. She knew that her new job involved providing “full service” as opposed to the hand jobs she occasionally gave to some of her customers after a massage at the parlour. Blue could see that in her new environment she would have much less bargaining power. Her new working environment has been much more stressful for her.

She no longer feels like she can count on the police.

The police raid increased Blue’s visibility to police and has put her at greater risk of being charged with a crime and deported. Her working permit restricts her from doing any sex-work-related job. One of her friends was arrested after the border agency caught her working in a massage parlour.

Given the added risk that the raid and unwanted police attention has placed on Blue’s immigration status, she no longer feels like she can count on the police should she ever need to report a crime herself.

So, when Blue was robbed by a client recently, she had no place to turn. She was afraid that by calling police, she risked deportation due to breaching the conditions of her working permit. She never made the call.

Linda, Ontario

When Linda moved to Ontario from Asia, she had just separated from her abusive husband and was hoping to support herself and her young child by opening a store. Language barriers made things very difficult, and Linda struggled to find enough hours in the day to work and look after her child, who has a chronic illness.

A friend helped Linda find work at an incall apartment with a group of sex workers. Using her commission from client fees, Linda paid her friend to help her with her advertisements, which was hard for Linda to do on her own due to her poor English skills.

The new laws coupled with immigration laws put Asian sex workers more at risk.

There is a lot about her new work that Linda likes. The hours are flexible, and there are no fixed costs. She is able to share her clients with other workers, who pay a commission in exchange for the referral. She has taught the other workers the importance of depositing their earnings in the bank and not keeping earned money at the workplace.

But there is a lot she doesn’t like. Her workplace is targeted because predators attack women they see as vulnerable and unlikely to be helped by police. The new laws coupled with immigration laws put Asian sex workers more at risk when abusers realize that sex workers can be deported if they speak up.

Linda is routinely physically assaulted at work by her clients, sometimes four or more times a week. One particular client has assaulted her and other workers for more than six months. Linda doesn’t feel she can call the police because she is worried that she or her friends could be arrested. One of Linda’s co-workers was seriously injured by a client but refused to go to hospital out of fear that police would find out.

Linda is now a permanent resident of Canada, but that hasn’t made her feel any safer.

Linda and her co-workers know that working together and supporting each other is essential for their safety at work. However, working together is not allowed under the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act, which the Canadian government passed into law in 2014.

Advertising is a criminal offence, too. Those who purchase Linda’s services are also criminals in the eyes of the law, for the first time in Canadian history. Anyone whom Linda pays to help with things like contacting clients or placing ads also risks being criminally charged for receiving “material benefits” related to sex work.

Linda is now a permanent resident of Canada, but that hasn’t made her feel any safer about calling on police when she is the victim of crime at work. She fears that if she were to go to the police to report violence or robbery, she would end up arrested and charged.

She also fears that were she ever to end up with a criminal record for something related to sex work, authorities might take her child away and order her deportation. And so Linda never calls, and the workplace violence continues.

Mi, Canada (since deported to Asia)

Mi came to Canada from Asia in 2015. She was arrested by the RCMP in mid-2016 because they found a warrant issued in her name from the Canadian Border Services Agency, who often work with the police to double up efforts on deporting migrant sex workers. The RCMP also seized $10,000 CAD from Mi, including all of her personal belongings and communication devices.

The officers who first approached Mi identified themselves as a team that helps victims and invited her to talk with them — she did not realize they were also police officers. She gave a statement that was later used to charge her for working illegally in Canada. It was only after Mi spoke with a lawyer that she was informed of her right to silence.

“They did not allow my friends to be a bondsperson to get me out.”

The police asked Mi many questions about whether she was a victim and whether there were others working with her. Despite the fact that Mi did not identify as a victim, she was held in detention while police “investigated.”

“The officer asked me if I was being controlled, being forced or if anyone had assisted me to come and work in Canada,” said Mi. “I told the officer that I did it voluntarily. No one received any money from me. I am over 40 years old, and I know what I am doing. No one forced me. They also kept asking me if I was working with others, and they asked me again and again who helped to advertise. They found a money transfer record, and I explained that there was a person who helped me do money exchange. However, they insisted this person was not helping me, and they kept saying this person is a trafficker.”

Mi told police she had been assaulted at a hotel by a stranger in the course of her work, but they took little interest and did not ask follow-up questions.

Typically people identified as illegal workers are held for shorter periods of time than people identified as trafficking victims, and the treatment Mi received as a result made her feel very frustrated, sad and scared. She was detained and locked with chains on her wrists, waist and legs. She felt very humiliated. She understood that she had worked illegally in Canada, but the police were also telling her she was being detained because she was a victim.

Communication was not facilitated for Mi during her detainment. No translator was provided, and because her phone was confiscated, she did not have the phone numbers of her friends. To be able to call Butterfly — a rights group based in Ontario for migrant and Asian sex workers — for help, she offered candy to others in exchange for instructions on how to make a collect call. Being in detention was the worst thing Mi had ever experienced.

“I was locked up in a prison. I was locked up almost two months. I might still be in prison if I was not helped by Butterfly,” said Mi.

“They took away my phone and didn't allow me to contact my friends and family. No one knew what had happened to me as they did not allow me to access the phonebook,” said Mi. “The judge (of detention review) did not allow me to leave, as they said they had to protect me. They thought my friends and clients were bad people and dangerous for me. They did not allow my friends to be a bondsperson to get me out of those chains. They also would not release me to my friends.”

Mi later found out that a picture of her and her friend was used by police to visit her friend.

“They said I was not allowed to get out because I did not have place to stay. But I told them that I would have a place to stay. All of my friends took care of me very well. They did not take my money. Some of them even gave me money sometimes.”

Mi was released back to her hometown with the assistance of Butterfly. But she was still very angry and frustrated at the treatment she had received, particularly because the police refused to return her money and personal belongings.

Mi later found out that a picture of her and her friend was used by police to visit her friend and accuse her of being a trafficker herself. Her friend was detained for 10 days. Neither Mi nor her friend were ever charged criminally, despite being held in detention.

The police have since informed Butterfly that they are working on an application to be able to seize the $10,000 they confiscated from Mi, because she had worked illegally in Canada.

“I have asked them when can I get back my money, but they do not respond to me,” said Mi. “During the interview, they said they will help me to get it back. However, they lied. They said that to make me talk to them. I did not know they were police because they said they were special officers who protect victims. They refuse to give the money and phone back to me, even after I have left Canada for three months now. Some of the money was what I brought to Canada. I still owe the lawyer fee and I cannot pay back the lawyer as I cannot get back the money.”

Mi’s phone and other communication devices are still being held by police as part of a supposed criminal investigation.

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