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.”

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Alberta chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw said on Thursday that the province has seen its first case of the B.1.617 variant. (Photography by Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta)
Red Deer nears record number of active COVID-19 cases

Alberta reports 1,857 new cases of COVID-19, 1,326 new variants

Shaela Dansereau/ Pipestone Flyer
City of Wetaskiwin releases 50-year Community Vision results

The comprehensive community vision has been divided into five core pillars.

People line up outside an immunization clinic to get their Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine in Edmonton, Tuesday, April 20, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Alberta passes bill to give all workers paid leave to get COVID-19 vaccine shot

Labour Minister Jason Copping says Bill 71 will reduce barriers for Alberta workers to get vaccinated

Alberta completed 18,412 COVID-19 tests, as reported on Wednesday, for a test positivity rate of 9.5 per cent. (NIAID-RML via AP)
Highest daily count of 2021 so far: Alberta reports 1,699 COVID-19 cases

Variants now make up 59 per cent of Alberta’s active cases

Screen grab/ https://www.alberta.ca/stats/covid-19-alberta-statistics.htm#geospatial
COVID-19 cases continue to grow in the Wetaskiwin area

The City of Wetaskiwin currently has 141 active cases.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and United States President Joe Biden smile as they say farewell following a virtual joint statement in Ottawa, Tuesday, February 23, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Trudeau pledges to cut emissions by 40% to 45% by 2030, short of U.S. goal

Trudeau announced target during a virtual climate summit convened by U.S. President Joe Biden

A health care worker prepares to test a Coastal GasLink field worker for COVID-19. (Coastal GasLink photo)
Alberta bill would protect health workers, care homes from some COVID-19 lawsuits

The bill proposes exempting a range of workers, including doctors, pharmacists and care-home operators, from being sued over COVID-19 unless it was for gross negligence

Journal de Montreal is seen in Montreal, on Thursday, April 22, 2021. The daily newspaper uses a file picture of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau dressed in traditional Indian clothing during his trip to India to illustrate a story on the Indian variant of the coronavirus. Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press
Montreal newspaper blasted for front-page photo of Trudeau in India

Trudeau is wearing traditional Indian clothes and holding his hands together in prayer beside a caption that reads, ‘The Indian variant has arrived’

Education Minister Adriana LaGrange was in Red Deer on Friday to provide an update on the province's COVID-19 response in schools.
Photo by PAUL COWLEY/Advocate staff
Alberta government aiming to boost financial literacy among students

Government providing grants to organizations who will help design financial literacy programming

President Joe Biden holds a virtual bilateral meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
U.S. to help Canada with more COVID-19 vaccine supply, Biden says

The U.S. has already provided Canada with about 1.5 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine

In this image from video, former Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin, center, is taken into custody as his attorney, Eric Nelson, left, looks on, after the verdicts were read at Chauvin’s trial for the 2020 death of George Floyd, Tuesday, April 20, 2021, at the Hennepin County Courthouse in Minneapolis, Minn. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Court TV via AP, Pool
George Floyd’s death was ‘wake-up call’ about systemic racism: Trudeau

Derek Chauvin was found guilty Tuesday on all three charges against him

sign
Alberta Biobord Corp. recently hosted a virtual open house from Stettler

The company plans to develop a fuel pellet and medium density fibre board (MDF) plant near the community

Most Read