Massage parlour rule changes in Newmarket discriminate against Asian women, critics say

Proposed changes to a bylaw regulating massage parlours in Newmarket are racist and discriminate against the Asian women who work in them, community advocates say. 

Newmarket town council, which is expected to ratify the changes on Monday, recently voted to change the name of body rub or massage parlours to “personal wellness establishments.” Now, it’s looking at new rules governing the operation of the businesses and the qualifications of the “personal wellness attendants” employed in them. 

Under the changes to the bylaw, which does not cover registered massage therapists, sex work would be prohibited and employees would have to be fully clothed at all times. Workers would also need to “submit a certificate, diploma, or other documentation from an accredited educational institution in Canada.” 

Elene Lam, an advocate with a group called Butterfly: Asian and Migrant Sex Worker Support Network, says the proposed qualifications are discriminatory. 

“That means many Asian, non-English speaking workers will not be able to work in Newmarket because they will not be able to be trained by this institution,” she told CBC Toronto. 

“Most of the Asian workers in massage parlours have been working for a very long time. They learned the skills from Asia because massage is also [a part of] Asian culture. Many of them have learned from on-job training or informal institutions.”

Elene Lam, an advocate with Butterfly: Asian and Migrant Sex Workers Support Network, says the proposed rule changes do not address the needs of Asian workers. (CBC)

There are exceptions to the proposed rule requiring accredited training in Canada. Those without it can still apply, but they will have to explain “the alternative Massage modality or modalities” they practise, or provide “proof satisfactory to the Manager that the Personal Wellness Attendant is a member in good standing” of an association.

Lam says these proposed qualifications are still barriers for Asian woman who struggle with English. 

“The exception requirement is very intimidating and also very inaccessible because people need to provide a lot of information, and for the non-English speaking people, this is very challenging. We found this policy [to be] extremely racist.”

Owners and attendants will also be required to meet with city staff, something Lam says further alienates certain populations. 

Sandra Ka Hon Chu, who works with the HIV Legal Network, says the new rules may put a lot of Asian people out of work. (Supplied by Sandra Ka Hon Chu)

“This is also very intimidating for the people who already face a lot of racism in their everyday lives,” she said.

Sandra Ka Hon Chu, the director of research and advocacy at the HIV Legal Network, agrees with Lam that navigating the exceptions will be hard for Asian workers. 

“Even applying and getting that status poses a barrier. The Newmarket town council believes this is not necessarily a huge barrier, but who did they consult with?” she said.

“They’re not talking to the people who might face these barriers and could hear first-hand what kind of limitations they would have in accessing these accreditations.”

It’s not illegal for individuals to sell sexual services in Canada.

But paying for sex, communicating for the purpose of offering sexual services, receiving financial or other benefits from the purchase of sexual services, recruiting a person for sex work, and advertising the sale of sexual services of others is against the law under Criminal Code provisions that came into effect in 2014. Groups representing sex-trade workers have launched a legal challenge to Canada’s prostitution laws.

Changes don’t target Asian community, mayor says

During a council meeting last month, Mayor John Taylor made it clear he wants to push sex work happening in body rub parlours out of Newmarket.

“I don’t want to send the message to our community that prostitution or sex work is acceptable,” he said. “I don’t want to send that message to my daughter, I don’t want to send that message to youth in the community and that includes boys.”

And during last week’s council meeting, which heard deputations from citizens about the bylaw changes, Taylor rejected the idea that the regulation was targeting the Asian community and said it “wasn’t grounded in reality” to suggest that. 

Taylor said the changes to the bylaw will “manage the conflict in our community between businesses and residents and illegal sexual activity.”

And in a emailed statement sent to CBC Toronto Friday, Taylor said he values the feedback he’s received during this process and that it has allowed council to “implement a framework for Newmarket to address illegal activity that was occurring and impacting other businesses and residents.” 

Not all workers are victims of human trafficking, critic says

During the deputations, many people spoke out in favour of the proposed changes, saying massage parlours do harm to women employees.

But Lam takes issue with some of the language used by anti-trafficking activists when talking about Asian women in the industry. 

“They keep saying that they speak little English and aren’t able to consent. This is racist and untrue. This is their job,” Lam said. 

“They keep saying … it is the site of human trafficking. The worker[s] keep saying, ‘This is my work. This is my job, I need my work to survive.'” 

Chu agrees, saying the conflation of migrant workers with sex work is stigmatizing. 

“It’s based on notions of Asian woman as people who sell or trade sex, all of them. While some massage workers may be selling or trading sex in the context of their massage parlour, it’s absolutely not everyone,” she said.

“If there’s sex work happening in these massage parlours, then it’s going to be happening outside of massage parlours in a less safe setting, perhaps unregulated and it will be not promoting workers safety at all.” 

Lisa Zhang, who works at a body rub parlour in Toronto, worries other jurisdictions will follow Newmarket’s lead. (Supplied by Elene Lam)

Lisa Zhang, who works at a body rub parlour in Toronto, says the proposed changes in Newmarket are criminalizing all women who work in massage parlours there.

“It’s not all massage parlours that offer sexual service[s]. This is also work; we should not discriminate against them because they also rely on themselves to earn a living and are surviving by themselves,” she said through an interpreter. 

Zhang worries Newmarket could be setting a precedent for other jurisdictions. Chu is concerned about that too. 

“We will be putting a lot of other workers at risk who may be losing their jobs and further driving people into more precarious situations.”

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