Lina Wang just wants to raise her child on the income she makes as a massage therapist. But since April, she has been unemployed and struggling to make ends meet. That’s when the town of Newmarket, Ontario, came to her workplace and handed her the first of six fine notices.

Today, she owes more than $6,000 in fines to the municipality.

“They told me that they fined me because I advertise my business illegally. As long as I stay open, they keep giving me fines. It’s an extreme financial burden for me,” said Wang, who is a mother who came to Canada from China 22 years ago. She has been working in the massage industry for 21 years.

Last year, Newmarket passed a “personal wellness bylaw” that required all massage businesses to obtain a new type of license, regardless whether they perform sexual services or not.

The town council claims the new bylaw was needed to help eliminate trafficking, perpetuating the harmful conflation of Asian massage work with human trafficking.

The bylaw was amended in June to include new eligibility criteria to obtain the license. The new criteria requires massage parlours to submit an application and supporting documents proving that all massage therapists employed there are registered massage therapists (RMT). The application process includes a criminal records check, proof of insurance, an interview with the business owner, and a site inspection.

So far, every application submitted by an Asian-owned massage parlour has been rejected or labeled incomplete, with no explanation.

“My application got rejected because neither me nor my staff have an RMT. I never tried to get one because the courses are in English, which I don’t speak,” said Wang in Chinese, adding that she also can’t afford the courses.

“If the city offered an RMT course in Mandarin, I will absolutely enroll and get my license,” she said.

Asian-owned massage parlours have also been targeted by surveillance and police harassment, which has led to loss of business and the closure of six businesses so far. In at least three cases, the presence of illegal sex work on the businesses’s premises was cited as a reason for their closure.

“They’re also exposing the town of Newmarket to a Charter challenge and possibly to costs and damages if it’s proven they have intentionally disempowered people, taken away people’s livelihoods.”

Wang is outraged that her 21 years of experience in the industry are not recognized as valid expertise by the city. She believes her extensive industry experience should make her a suitable candidate for RMT qualification. When she started her career in massage, she enrolled in a two-month course in Chinese. The course was short enough and affordable enough to allow her to quickly enter the job market and earn money. She says it’s infuriating that the government does not recognize that qualification.

Many of her industry peers face similar barriers in qualifying for the RMT. Asian massage therapists are disproportionately low-income, migrant women, with little or no English proficiency like Wang. They cannot afford the course fees and cannot afford to be away from work for the time it takes to complete it. They struggle to make sense of the government’s constant regulation changes to operate a massage business.

Fighting back

For the past year, mostly Asian women and activists have been locked in a battle with the local town council who claim massage businesses can be hotbeds of human trafficking and sex work.

In August, mobilization efforts intensified amidst growing frustration.

Butterfly, an advocacy organization, published an open letter calling attention to the issue.

“We are not dishonourable trash to be cleansed from the city. We are not expendable labourers who can be coerced into the back-breaking, low-paying jobs they think we deserve. We are not helpless trafficking victims in need of rescue. We are human beings who can choose our own path, make our own decisions, and support ourselves with dignity if they’ll only let us.”

Asian massage therapists and advocacy organizations recently rallied in front of Newmarket Municipal Offices to condemn the new bylaw as classist and racist.

At a recently rally in Newmarket, demonstrators left flyers taped to the door to send a strong message to the town council demanding that they repeal the new bylaw targeting Asian massage workers.

Friends of Chinatown

NDP MPP for Toronto Centre Kristyn Wong-Tam, who could not attend the rally in person, sent a message of solidarity to be read out loud, calling for an end to “discriminatory policies” that “promotes anti-Asian racism.”

More than 100 human rights organizations from across Canada have signed a petition urging the municipal government to cease enforcing the bylaw and to revisit the “personal wellness establishment” classification system.

Last month, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF) sent a joint letter to Newmarket’s Council saying the bylaw has a “discriminatory impact by forcing primarily low-income Asian massage parlour workers – most of whom are women – out of work, violating their right to equality guaranteed under Section 15 of the Charter.”

Wong-Tam told Ricochet that Newmarket town council would be wise to take the letter seriously.

“Now that LEAF and the CCLA have got involved, and have cautioned the town council with letters to tell them they are operating outside the law with regard to the human rights framework — that is really something to pay attention to.”

“As a former member of city council in Toronto, if I received a letter from groups saying that I am in contravention of the human rights code, I would probably turn pretty quickly to the city solicitor and ask that they provide comments on that letter,” she said. “That’s at minimum what Newmarket town council should be doing to ensure they are not stepping on human rights, which is the highest law of the land.”

“They’re also exposing the town of Newmarket to a Charter challenge and possibly to costs and damages if it’s proven they have intentionally disempowered people, taken away people’s livelihoods,” Wong-Tam adds.

Elene Lam, a spokesperson for Butterly, says that she has repeatedly asked the city for clarity on qualification requirements that are realistic for low-income, non-English speaking workers.

“The bylaw review last year mentioned that the city would recognize an online course of a few hours, but that’s not the case anymore,” said Lam. “We want to know what those businesses should do to get approved for a license, but the city is not giving any answers or information.”

Lam says that law enforcement is regularly fining Asian massage parlours. She says police go undercover and call businesses pretending to be clients booking an appointment, only to immediately fine them. Massage workers have also reported feeling intimidated by police officers standing outside their businesses to record visiting clients.

Dozens rallied recently in Newmarket Ontario, outside the town council offices calling for a repeal of the new bylaw. Since the bylaw has been in effect, every application submitted by an Asian-owned massage parlour has been rejected or labeled incomplete, with no explanation.

Lam believes that authorities target Asian massage parlours because they believe there is sex work on their premises. Asian-owned massage businesses have long been stigmatized because of their association with sex work, even though many do not offer sexual services.

“Some clients now force the workers to provide sexual services unwillingly by threatening to report them to authorities for illegally operating an unlicensed massage parlour if they do not comply”, said Lam. “The city claims to protect women against human trafficking. But the bylaw has made it more dangerous for the workers because they are targeted by law enforcement, are losing income, and can’t report dangerous clients.”

False and disparaging claims of human trafficking

“Scant evidence has been presented for any human-trafficking-related crime in Newmarket’s alternative massage industry,” writes NOW Magazine. “Last year, York Regional police told the Toronto Star that there had been no recent charges of human trafficking or any other offences laid against Newmarket body rub parlours.”

Newmarket denied Ricochet’s request for an interview. They sent a statement stating that the bylaw aims to “license lawful businesses” and give the city “tools to shut down illegal activity in our community,” which, they say, has been impacting businesses and the community.

While not mentioning sex work or trafficking explicitly, it states that Newmarket “cannot issue a business license to any business engaging in any form of illegal activity contrary to provincial or federal laws.” They claim that almost 50 per cent of personal wellness businesses have been licensed under the new bylaw, with no mention of the number of licensed Asian-owned businesses.

They also state that they are in discussions with York University, which has created a program training massage therapists. They state that any massage therapists who complete the course will be accredited by the city. That accreditation will be considered “one of the key criteria of the application.”

There is no mention of the program’s tuition fees, or whether it will be offered in Chinese as well.

York University’s School of Kinesiology and Health Science said they do not offer such a program. The university did host a panel in English and Mandarin during Asian Heritage Month about the recent bylaw featuring migrant Asian massage therapists, Lam, and various other experts. The panel did not mention any training programs for massage therapists.

The city claims that during a “consultation period with the community,” they “found it was important to our residents that any person performing alternative massage services has a basic level of training to prevent harm or risk to the client.”

Wang is fed up with this inaction. “Why does the government put so much pressure on me? I am proud of being a massage therapist and of helping others alleviate their pain. Now I have no job, no money, and all of those fines. If they keep going, I have no idea what I will do,” she says.