Stop enforcing sex work laws during COVID-19, Amnesty, sex worker advocates say

Stop enforcing sex work laws during COVID-19, Amnesty, sex worker advocates say

‘We need to make sure the existing laws on the books aren’t enforced’

OTTAWA — Canada’s sex work laws are creating undue harm and contribute to human rights violations during COVID-19, sex workers and human rights advocates say, which is why they’re now pushing Ottawa to stop enforcing them.

Amnesty International Canada has joined a number of rights and sex work advocates in a lobby effort asking federal Justice Minister David Lametti for a moratorium on prostitution laws.

“We need to make sure the existing laws on the books aren’t enforced,” said Jackie Hansen, women’s rights campaigner for Amnesty International Canada.

“Government has put them in a position where they won’t provide them income supports and yet will criminalize them if they work. That just needs to stop.”

They say decriminalizing sex work would help ease the burden workers have faced by taking away police surveillance of their work and their lives.

“Because sex work is not recognized as work, the labour standards and protocols that other industries are receiving right now are not available to the sex industry,” says Jenn Clamen, national co-ordinator of the Canadian Alliance for Sex Work Law Reform.

Businesses employing sex workers often operate in the shadows, so as they reopen they have no way to formalize and co-ordinate safety protocols or access supports for personal protective equipment, which are available to other industries, Clamen said.

These groups have also been raising alarm about how the criminalization of sex workers has caused them to remain ineligible to receive emergency income supports despite seeing their incomes disappear overnight when the pandemic hit.

There are provisions in Canada’s prostitution laws that make workers immune from prosecution, but not from arrest, which has led many workers to prefer to remain undocumented, their incomes undeclared.

This means they don’t have the necessary paperwork to prove eligibility for the Canada Emergency Response Benefit — a program being administered through the federal tax system.

“Criminalization is a direct barrier for accessing CERB and is a direct barrier for sex workers accessing other legal and social, medical supports in the community,” said Jelena Vermilion, executive director of Sex Workers’ Action Program (SWAP) Hamilton.

Vermilion, who is also a sex worker, says organizations like hers have been raising money through grassroots campaigns to provide aid to those who are struggling. But despite the relative success of some of these local initiatives, this aid has only been able to offer $50 or $100 gift cards and cash transfers to workers.

“That doesn’t pay rent at the end of the day,” she said.

“A lot of us are not surviving. It’s really pushing people who don’t have the option to access CERB into destitution, into further entrenched poverty. It’s going to cause people who were already on the margins, just surviving, to be ruined.”

The federal government has shovelled out millions in COVID-19 aid to shelters, sexual assault centres and a number of organizations that serve women and marginalized groups, including a $350-million investment to support charities and non-profit organizations serving vulnerable populations.

Clamen says these funds, while necessary, are not providing the help sex workers need.

Middle-class Canadians who lost their jobs are getting access to income supports, but sex workers are being helped by charities giving out gift cards, she said.

“The $100 grocery card that dictate where sex workers or people who don’t have income should shop or get their groceries is an extremely paternalistic response to people who actually need income supports,” Clamen said.

“The money needs to go into the hands of people.”

While they continue to push for more direct financial aid, Amnesty International Canada, the Canadian Alliance for Sex Work Law Reform and other rights advocates say halting the enforcement of the laws that criminalize their lives would do much more.

“This is about the human rights of sex workers. When you are just furthering marginalization and you are furthering inequality, this is not where we want to be,” Hansen said.

“In a pandemic it can’t be a response that leads to some groups being disproportionately marginalized and impacted because government finds it hard to figure out how to handle this issue.”

In a statement Friday, Lametti’s office says officials are “aware of the specific concerns” that sex workers and advocates have highlighted but offered no comment on whether it is considering this legal move.

“We continue to engage with individuals and groups affected by the former Bill C-36,” the statement said, referencing the federal prostitution law brought in under the Conservative government of former prime minister Stephen Harper.

That law is up for its mandatory five-year review this year, which Lametti’s office says will provide “an appropriate forum for parliamentarians to examine the full range of effects that this legislation has had since its coming into force.”

Just Posted

Police officers and their dogs undergo training at the RCMP Police Dog Services training centre in Innisfail, Alta., on Wednesday, July 15, 2015. Mounties say they are searching for an armed and dangerous man near a provincial park in northern Alberta who is believed to have shot and killed a service dog during a police chase. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
RCMP search for armed man in northern Alberta after police dog shot and killed

Cpl. Deanna Fontaine says a police service dog named Jago was shot during the pursuit

Alberta now has 2,336 active cases of COVID-19, with 237 people in hospital, including 58 in intensive care. (Black Press file photo)
Red Deer down to 73 active cases of COVID-19, lowest since early November

The Central zone has 253 active cases of the virus

The Sylvan Lake Gulls show off the home jerseys (white) and their way jerseys at the Gulls Media Day on June 17, before the season opener. Following the media day, the team took to the field for their first practise. (Photo by Megan Roth/Sylvan Lake News)
Sylvan Lake Gulls ready to throw first pitch as construction continues

The Gulls inaugural season kicks off June 18 with a game against the Edmonton Prospects

People line up to get their COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination centre, Thursday, June 10, 2021 in Montreal. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
Vaccines, low COVID case counts increase Father’s Day hope, but risk is still there

Expert says people will have to do their own risk calculus before popping in on Papa

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is seen during a joint news conference following the EU-Canada Summit, in Brussels, Belgium, Tuesday June 15, 2021. Trudeau says Canada is on track now to have 68 million doses delivered by the end of July, which is more than enough to fully vaccinate all 33.2 million Canadians over the age of 12. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Vaccine deliveries enough to fully vaccinate all eligible Canadians by end of July

Three in four eligible Canadians now have their first dose, nearly one in five fully vaccinated.

Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam listens to a question during a news conference, in Ottawa, Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2021. The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases attributed to the highly contagious Delta variant grew in Canada this week. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Canada’s public health agency reports spike in confirmed cases of Delta variant

More than 2,000 cases of the variant confirmed across all 10 provinces and in one territory

The federal government says it wants to ban most flavoured vaping products in a bid to reduce their appeal to youth. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Craig Mitchelldyer
Health Canada proposes ban on most vaping flavours it says appeal to youth

If implemented, the regulations would restrict all e-cigarette flavours except tobacco, mint and menthol

The Montreal Police logo is seen in Montreal on Wednesday, July 8, 2020. Some Quebec politicians are calling for an investigation after a video was released that appears to show a Montreal police officer with his leg on a young Black man’s neck during an arrest. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson
Probe called for after video appearing to show Montreal officer’s knee on Black youth’s neck

Politicians call for investigation after clip evokes memories of George Floyd incident

Thousands of protesters make their way through the downtown core during a Black Lives Matter protest in Ottawa, Friday June 5, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
MPs’ study of systemic racism in policing concludes RCMP needs new model

Chair of the House public safety committee says it’s time for a reckoning on ‘quasi-military’ structure

A case filled with packages of boneless chicken breasts is shown in a grocery store Sunday, May 10, 2020, in southeast Denver. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-David Zalubowski
One million chickens euthanized during labour dispute at Quebec slaughterhouse

Premier says waste amounts to 13 per cent of the province’s chicken production thrown in the garbage

A section of the eastern slopes of the Canadian Rockies is seen west of Cochrane, Alta., Thursday, June 17, 2021. A joint federal-provincial review has denied an application for an open-pit coal mine in Alberta’s Rocky Mountains, saying its impacts on the environment and Indigenous rights aren’t worth the economic benefits it would bring. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
Panel says Grassy Mountain coal mine in Alberta Rockies not in public interest

Public hearings on the project in southern Alberta’s Crowsnest Pass region were held last fall

Most Read