Punitive bylaw enforcement increases risk of violence for massage workers

Ticketing for bylaw infractions has nothing to do with combatting human trafficking
Photo: JP Newell
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The recent murder of 24-year-old Ashley Noell Arzaga is the latest in a pattern of senseless and avoidable acts of violence against sex workers in southern Ontario in recent years. Arzaga was pronounced dead at the scene in what appeared to be a machete attack on Feb. 24, 2020, at North York’s Crown Spa, which provides erotic massage services and is one of only 25 body rub parlours the City of Toronto will licence. A 17-year-old has been charged with first-degree murder and attempted murder.

Holistic health practitioners and body rubbers in Toronto have highlighted the problem of increased risk of violence against them to the City for years, but their concerns have repeatedly been unheard. Butterfly, a support network for Asian and migrant sex workers, has received more than 25 reports over the last three months alone for robbery, assault, and other types of crime. Violence against holistic practitioners and body rubbers comes not only from private perpetrators but also from state actors such as Toronto Municipal and Licensing Standards bylaw officers who enforce punitive laws and regulations that increase workers’ vulnerability to violence and other abuses.

Punitive investigations and ticketing for violations such as not giving receipts, locking massage room doors, or not having tables in “good repair” cannot be said to have anything to do with human trafficking at all.

For instance, Toronto Bylaws 545-177(I) and 545-343 directly undermine workers’ safety by forbidding owners and workers (with certain exception) from locking their doors or even installing a locking device of any kind on doors to individual rooms and cubicles. In spite of the safety issues raised by workers in the industry, the City has entirely overridden their concerns, taking the position that these provisions have been “put in place as a safety measure for workers in body rub parlours.”

In doing so, the City has taken the view that they know better than holistic workers and body rubbers themselves what strategies would be most effective in terms of personal and workplace safety. Further, severe City zoning regulations effectively force body rub parlours into unlit, underpopulated, and ultimately unsafe areas of the city.

This paternalistic approach to holistic workers and body rubbers has been a theme throughout the City’s treatment of these communities. Holistic practitioners and body rubbers have been increasingly targeted over recent years with excessive, unnecessary and discriminatory inspections and prosecutions. According to data obtained through freedom of information requests, from 2013 to 2016 the number of Municipal Licensing and Standards visits to holistic centres increased by 212 per cent while visits to individual holistic practitioners increased by 323 per cent.

This has in turn led to a large spike in charges to holistic centres and practitioners for bylaw infractions, many of which are for minor, immaterial or the result of workers’ measures to protect their own safety, such as locking their doors. During the City’s recent bylaw review consultations, the voices of workers in the industry were largely ignored.

Currently, nine full-time bylaw enforcement officers are dedicated to specifically targeting holistic centres and body rub parlours. Proponents of aggressive bylaw enforcement frequently use vague arguments about combatting human trafficking and upholding health and safety to justify increased funding for bylaw enforcement. Yet there is no rational connection between a campaign of vigorous and aggressive enforcement of city bylaws and the policy objective of addressing the issue of human trafficking.

Violence against holistic practitioners and body rubbers comes not only from private perpetrators but also from state actors such as Toronto Municipal and Licensing Standards bylaw officers.

Punitive investigations and ticketing for violations such as not giving receipts, locking massage room doors, or not having tables in “good repair” cannot be said to have anything to do with human trafficking at all. They do, however, have the effect of directly punishing and further economically marginalizing racialized immigrant women, who are the predominant targets of these punitive campaigns. Some workers have alleged that bylaw enforcement have also engaged in demeaning and dehumanizing behaviour, including racial profiling and derogatory and misogynistic remarks.

It is past time for the City to admit that its heavy-handed approach towards bylaw enforcement is not working and is endangering the safety of workers in these industries, many of whom are racialized women.

Workers in holistic centres and body rub parlours deserve to work in safe and favourable conditions. That means the City must immediately stop excessive bylaw enforcement, repeal bylaws that have the effect of infringing on the security and safety of workers, defund the nine full-time bylaw enforcement officers targeting holistic centres and body rub parlours, reallocate funding towards programs enhancing worker safety and labour conditions, and ensure that a comprehensive review of current bylaws and policies is conducted with the meaningful participation of owners, practitioners, and other stakeholders in holistic centres and body rub parlours.

We must find a pathway to end violence against women in holistic centres and support them in accessing safety, resources, and supports. Another tragedy like the death of Arzaga should not happen again.

Vincent Wong is an adjunct professor and William C. Graham research associate at the International Human Rights Program at the University of Toronto Faculty of Law. Elene Lam is the executive director of Butterfly: Asian and Migrant Sex Worker Support Network.

March 17, 2020: Article amended to clarify that certain exceptions exist in relation to rules about locking doors.
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