Law enforcement

Human trafficking rhetoric is driving Toronto’s review of holistic centre licensing

Overpolicing holistic practitioners — who are predominantly Asian immigrant women — pushes their work underground and makes violence more likely
Photo: YU-JEN SHIH
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Thousands of holistic practitioners in Toronto, the majority of whom are Asian immigrant women, are worried they will soon be out of work and unable to provide for their families.

As part of a review process, city staff in the Municipal and Licencing Standards Division have proposed revoking licences for holistic centres, claiming most are offering unlicensed services.

Holistic practitioners provide a variety of services for medical or therapeutic treatment, such as reiki, shiatsu, and aromatherapy. About 2,200 of them work in Toronto. They have reported that an increase in bylaw infractions is the result of excessive inspections, fining, and enforcement. They have also repeatedly insisted that restrictive and inaccessible licensing practices reduce workplace autonomy, increase opportunities for violence and exploitation, and severely impact their right to work and earn a livelihood for themselves and their families.

Auditor general’s report

In 2017, Toronto’s auditor general released a problematic report on holistic centres. This report, as well as the licensing changes currently under consideration, are contextualized by a long history of discrimination against holistic practitioners and body rub workers based on assumptions and stereotypes related to human trafficking and public health and community safety concerns.

The auditor general’s report failed to engage in evidence-based research and was prepared without any consultation with holistic practitioners. Holistic practitioners strongly assert that they are neither trafficked victims nor traffickers, and they insist that the greatest threats they face come from excessive regulation, inspection, fining, and harassment from bylaw enforcement.

Information obtained from the city through a freedom of information request showed that only five charges were laid related to unlicensed services at holistic centres from 2016 to 2018.

Trafficking narratives conflate holistic centres with trafficking, conflate Asian immigrants with trafficking, and conflate sex work with trafficking. These misconceptions are fueled by the anti-trafficking movement, which is comprised mostly of white women and comes out a clear racist and anti–sex work agenda.

Despite a glaring lack of evidence, anti-trafficking vigilantes inaccurately claim they work for the human rights of women and girls, who, they argue, are forced into holistic centres. Instead of listening to the voices of holistic practitioners, they call for the shutdown of holistic centres. In a clear example of this, a religious group with an anti-sex-work position submitted recommendations to the committee reviewing licensing for holistic centres that contradict the needs of holistic practitioners as they define them.

City Council meeting

A City Council meeting in April 2018, where the idea to revoke licences for holistic centres that incurred bylaw infractions was raised, was loaded with examples that demonstrate the city’s discriminatory position on holistic centres.

One councillor went so far as to incorrectly suggest that most holistic practitioners offer unlicensed services, based on a review of online advertisements and sexist judgments regarding the types of clothing worn by women in photos.

Even the auditor general’s report states that only one-fourth of holistic centres appear to offer unlicensed services. In fact, information obtained from the city through a freedom of information request showed that only five charges were laid related to unlicensed services at holistic centres from 2016 to 2018.

Overpolicing and a heavy-handed approach to policy and bylaw enforcement have contributed to inaccurate depictions of holistic practitioners as lawbreakers. Similarly, anti-sex-work rhetoric and racist stereotypes about Asian immigrant workers has resulted in the conflation of holistic practitioners, sex work, and trafficking.

Deputations

Deputations from human rights advocates, legal representatives, and sex work and migrant justice organizations detailed holistic practitioners’ experiences of racial profiling and misogyny.

In one instance, a holistic practitioner was asked by a bylaw officer to remove clothing during an inspection, as her undergarments were thought to serve as some sort of proof of whether sexual services were being offered.

The history of white saviour feminism has roots in colonial and anti-immigrant agendas that were characteristic of 20th-century Canada.

Advocates called on the review committee to conduct consultations with holistic practitioners and body rub workers before making decisions that will gravely impact their lives.

In contrast, sex work abolitionists call for more engagement from social workers and law enforcement, and even want to force workers to receive anti-trafficking information as a prerequisite for licensing. Instead of respecting the agency and supporting the empowerment of workers to access their rights, anti-sex-work white saviours label holistic practitioners as victims and displace their voices in conversations that should be centring them.

White saviour feminism

A deputation given by a white sex work abolitionist made clear that she was working with politicians and using anti-trafficking arguments to attack the group of mostly racialized advocates and people working with holistic centres. Why is it that anti-trafficking groups ignore the individuals that they claim to protect, and instead stir up moral panic in politicians and the public?

The history of white saviour feminism has roots in colonial and anti-immigrant agendas that were characteristic of 20th-century Canada. The measures and outcomes of contemporary anti-trafficking rhetoric obscure the movement’s more honest goal of sex work prohibition. There are startling similarities between social cleansing efforts directed toward Chinatowns in major cities across Canada in the 1900s, and present-day claims that sex trafficking is exacerbated by illegal immigration to Canada from East Asian countries.

Anti-trafficking organizations continue to to be informed by the Church and mobilize politicians through fearmongering that produces a sense of danger and hate targeted at sex workers — especially migrant sex workers and people suspected of migrant sex work, such as those who work at holistic centres. Anti-trafficking groups collude with politicians, law enforcement, and immigration officials, and “saviour” efforts most often result in harassment, violence, loss of employment, and even deportation. White saviours publicly call for increased protection from law enforcement but what actually arises is intense surveillance, control, and harassment of holistic practitioners.

Workers’ rights

Not everyone who works in holistic centres offers sexual services, but regardless of the work that people engage in everyone should have the right to workplace safety and a work environment free from racism, sexism, and discrimination. Many people claim to support sex workers’ right to work but buy into the moral panic spread by anti-trafficking groups. This rationale is often based on the myth that tougher law enforcement will result in fewer exploitative businesses.

A highly regulatory approach, however, fails to take into consideration the complexities of people’s lives and their choices. As highlighted by a recent report released by The Colour of Poverty regarding racial inequity, racialized immigrant women disproportionately face high rates of poverty and harsh working conditions. When the options available to people are already limited by social inequality and social injustice, restricting their choices further will only contribute to marginalization and exploitation.

It is also exceedingly important to differentiate poor working conditions and human trafficking. Sex work and human trafficking are highly conflated, and the legal distinctions between the two are not as clear as one might think. Labour exploitation is common in many industries, such as restaurants and domestic services, but does not result in the same degree of moral outrage as accusations of sex trafficking. Across most industries, exploitation is often the result of discrimination, poverty, and other precarious circumstances. The overpolicing of Asian immigrant women in holistic centres pushes work further underground and creates situations where experiences of harassment, violence, and sexual assault are far more likely.

Toronto City Hall will discuss and vote on changes to bylaws regarding holistic centres on June 18 and 19. Prior to that, there are key committee meetings on May 21 and 27. If the proposed bylaws pass and holistic licences are dissolved, about 2,200 holistic practitioner jobs will be impacted. Rather than creating and increasing public moral panic, the City of Toronto should work to eliminate racism and discrimination directed at people who work in holistic centres, body rub parlours or the sex industry.

Elene Lam holds a Master of Social Work and a Master of Law, with a specialization in human rights. She is currently a PhD student at McMaster University, where she is researching the harms associated with anti-trafficking initiatives. Elene has been actively engaged in work related to human rights, violence against women, migration, gender, and sex work justice for over 20 years. She has also served as a sessional faculty at McMaster University. Elene is the executive director and a founder of Butterfly.

Renee Dumaresque is a Toronto-based social worker and is a PhD student at York University. Their doctoral work grapples with health and healthcare as critical sites of inquiry into the constitution of race, gender, sexuality, madness, disability and neoliberalism. Renee is also an organizing member of Showing Up for Racial Justice Toronto.

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