Supporting Sex Workers in Toronto

SURJTO is celebrating the organizing power of migrant workers in holistic centres, body rub parlours and the sex industry in Toronto! SURJTO showed up as part of a broad coalition advanced by Butterfly: Asian and Migrant Sex Worker Support Network to keep the City of Toronto from passing dangerous bylaws that would have seriously impacted the safety and right to work for over 2,200 mostly racialized migrant women. SURJTO is committed to this campaign because these policies target low-income immigrant women who deserve fair and equal treatment by the city. 

The City has been pushing for an increase in targeted inspections of holistic centres based on unfounded allegations of human trafficking. Holistic centre workers are mostly migrant Asian women and allegations of human trafficking emerge from stereotypes that Asian women are powerless victims forced into the sex industry. But workers themselves have repeatedly insisted that they are not trafficking victims, and that anti-trafficking initiatives have dramatically increased their vulnerability on the job. Many report experiencing excessive ticketing and abusive interactions with City inspectors that amount to racial profiling, sexism and systemic harassment. 

This is in line with national and global trends. As funding for anti-trafficking initiatives has dramatically increased, most of the resources have been directed toward the criminalization of sex work. Anti-trafficking initiatives especially target low-income, racialized, Indigenous or migrant sex workers. 

SURJTO supported the efforts of sex work and migrant rights advocates who are fighting these initiatives and demanding the right to fair and safe workplaces for migrant holistic centre workers. SURJTO provided testimony at key committee meetings in May in support of proposals made by Butterfly and Maggie’s: Toronto Sex Workers Action Project. As a direct result of their organizing, The Economic and Social Development Committee advanced an amendment to their motion that was explicitly informed by the proposal from Butterfly and Maggies. These changes were later adopted by City Council with consensus. Although the City maintains a repressive and regulatory approach to governing holistic centres and body rub parlous, the passing of this motion will meaningfully reduce the harm enacted through city inspections by committing a level of community oversight and consultation. Importantly, The City report on trafficking also recognized the importance of not conflating sex work with trafficking. 

The campaign led by Butterfly and Maggie’s did not end or defund the anti-trafficking initiative but it did ensure that it will not further worker’s vulnerability. Our campaign was successful in advocating that the City’s emerging outreach initiative will not be based on invasive inspections, that the services will be voluntary, the City will commit to a human-rights based approach, and uphold the City of Toronto’s promise to serve as a Sanctuary City. Most importantly, the Council agreed that their strategy will keep Bylaw enforcement officers out of workplaces. Instead, their anti-trafficking outreach will be conducted through peer-led community organizations who have trusting relationships to migrant holistic centre workers and sex workers. 

The fight is far from over. Bylaw officers still hold the power to enter migrant workplaces and often act with near impunity. But keeping officers out of migrant workplaces in The City’s emerging strategy is a crucial move to reduce the harm enacted by city surveillance and harassment of migrants. 

This demonstration of people power and coalitional organizing is a real win, especially for marginalized workers who showed that community voice matters and makes a difference in influencing policy.

It’s critical that we continue to apply pressure to ensure that Council makes good on their promises. As The City engages in further review of their  policy surrounding hollistic centres and body rub parlours, we must watch carefully, fight against harmful policies, and support workers in the long fight for migrant and labour justice! SURJTO is dedicated to holding City Council accountable and invites you to stay tuned in about how you can plug in.