Justice Minister David Lametti. (The Canadian Press)

Justice Minister David Lametti. (The Canadian Press)

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

There are provisions in Canada’s prostitution laws that make workers immune from prosecution, but not from arrest

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.

ALSO READ: Sex workers say they’re at risk, have been left out of Canada’s COVID-19 response

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.”

Teresa Wright, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism? Make a donation here.

Coronavirus

Just Posted

The Co-op gas station at Whiskey Creek is burning after a camper van burst into flames just before 4 p.m. on Thursday, June 17, 2021. (FACEBOOK PHOTO)
Exploding camper van torches Highway 4 gas station between Qualicum Beach and Port Alberni

Highway traffic blocked after Whiskey Creek gas station erupts into flames

Timmy Masso smiles alongside his niece Huumiis and nephew Cinkwa. (Submitted photo)
Ucluelet Secondary School graduate earns TD Scholarship for Community Leadership

Timmy Masso’s passionate advocacy of the Nuu-chah-nulth language leads to $70K scholarship

Two ambulances and a medevac helicopter are on scene at Taylor River Flats rest area on Highway 4 due to a serious motor vehicle incident. (PHOTO COURTESY MAGGIE BROWN)
Highway 4 reopens after accident at Taylor River Flats

Multi-vehicle crash had closed highway to west coast

Grade 12 graduates Jada Touchie, Timothy Masso and Brendan Brown are all smiles after receiving their Goodies for the Grads gift packs thanks to a small neighbourhood grant from the Clayoquot Biosphere Trust. (Nora O’Malley photo)
Ucluelet Secondary School grads set to parade through town

Family and friends can cheer on the Class of 2021 this Saturday, June 19 at 4:30 p.m.

From left, Ahousaht First Nation Hereditary Chief Richard George presents a $10,000 cheque to Tofino Hatchery manager Doug Palfrey alongside Tyler Huebner of TCH Contracting The funds will go towards rebuilding Cypre river Chinook. (Carallyn Bowes photo)
Tofino Hatchery receives $10K donation

Tofino Salmon Enhancement Society tackling massive drop in Chinook salmon stocks

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

Helen Austin performing with Trent Freeman at the 2018 Vancouver Island MusicFest. Austin is one of the many performers listed for the 2021 event.
Vancouver Island MusicFest goes virtual for 2021

Black Press to stream 25 hours of programming July 9-11

Greater father involvement in the home leads to improved childhood development and increased marital satisfaction, says expert. (Black Press Media file photo)
Vancouver Island researcher finds lack of father involvement a drag on gender equality

Working women still taking on most child and household duties in Canada: UVic professor

FILE – A science class at L.A. Matheson Secondary in Surrey, B.C. on March 12, 2021. (Lauren Collins/Surrey Now Leader)
Teachers’ union wants more COVID transmission data as B.C. prepares for back-to-school

BCTF says that details will be important as province works on plan for September

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry outlines B.C.’s COVID-19 restart plan, May 25, 2021, including larger gatherings and a possible easing of mandatory masks on July 1. (B.C. government photo)
B.C. records 120 new COVID-19 cases, second vaccines accelerating

Lower Pfizer deliveries for early July, Moderna shipments up

A Heffley Creek peacock caught not one - but two - lifts on a logging truck this month. (Photo submitted)
Heffley Creek-area peacock hops logging trucks in search of love

Peacock hitched two lifts in the past month

The Calgary skyline is seen on Friday, Sept. 15, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
2 deaths from COVID-19 Delta variant in Alberta, 1 patient was fully immunized

Kerry Williamson with Alberta Health Services says the patients likely acquired the virus in the hospital

The first suspension bridge is the tallest in Canada, with a second suspension bridge just below it. The two are connected by a trail that’s just over 1 km. (Claire Palmer photo)
PHOTOS: The highest suspension bridges in Canada just opened in B.C.

The Skybridge in Golden allows visitors to take in views standing at 130 and 80 metres

BC Green Party leader and Cowichan Valley MLA Sonia Furstenau introduced a petition to the provincial legislature on Thursday calling for the end of old-growth logging in the province. (File photo)
BC Green leader Furstenau introduces old-growth logging petition

Party calls for the end of old-growth logging as protests in Fairy Creek continue

Most Read