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

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

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.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 4, 2020.

Teresa Wright, The Canadian Press

Coronavirus

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 the province still hopes to bring the hospitalization number down before relaxing restrictions. (photography by Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta)
14 new deaths, 366 new COVID-19 cases in Alberta

Province nearing 100K COVID-19 vaccine doses administered

Art Kempf, originally from the Stettler area but now living in Lacombe, is pictured here with his late wife Lillian. Art’s 100th birthday is coming up on Feb. 22nd.
photo submitted
Former Stettler area resident Art Kempf will be celebrating a very special day next month

Kempf, now a Lacombe resident, marks his 100th birthday on Feb. 22nd

photo courtesy of Lara Angus
Kate Syson, Sharon Fischer and Allan King pose with the Zamboni on Stettler’s newest skating spot.
photo courtesy of Lara Angus
Stettler Elementary leadership take the Zamboni for a spin

Sharon Fischer and Kate Syson lend a hand for Stettler’s new skating spot

People skate on a lake in a city park in Montreal, Sunday, January 10, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes
The end of hugs: How COVID-19 has changed daily life a year after Canada’s 1st case

Today marks the one year anniversary of COVID-19 landing in Canada

Terrance Josephson of the Princeton Posse, at left, and Tyson Conroy of the Summerland Steam clash during a Junior B hockey game at the Summerland Arena in the early spring of 2020. (John Arendt - Summerland Review)
QUIZ: How much do you know about hockey?

Test your knowledge of Canada’s national winter sport

(Photo submitted)
Central Alberta researchers recognized for studies in agricultural sciences

Jessica Sperber of Ponoka and David MacTaggart of Lacombe awarded prestigious scholarship

FILE – Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau delivers his opening remarks at a news conference outside Rideau cottage in Ottawa, Tuesday, January 19, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Vaccine CEO ‘very, very clear’ that Canada’s contracts will be honoured: Trudeau

Trudeau says he spoke to Moderna CEO on the morning of Jan. 26

A ground worker wearing a face mask to curb the spread of COVID-19 unloads lobsters from a WestJet Airlines flight at Vancouver International Airport, in Richmond, B.C., on Thursday, January 21, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Trudeau teases stricter travel measures; Canadians flying to U.S. now need COVID test

Prime minister says measures need to not hurt imports and essential trade

(Photo submitted)
Ponoka RCMP receives new police puppy trainee

Detachment says goodbye to ‘Maja’ and welcomes ‘Neutron’

'The Coronavirus Isn't Scary' by Kristy Walker.
Sylvan Lake author pens first children’s book about COVID-19

“The Coronavirus Isn’t Scary” by Kristy Walker teaches children to take care of themselves

Whistle Stop Cafe owner Christopher Scott and his sister Melodie are serving sit-down customers in their Mirror diner to protest health restrictions that they say are unfair to restaurants and other small businesses. (Photo by Paul Cowley/Advocate staff)
Central Alberta restaurant owner defies health restrictions by serving diners

Whistle Stop Cafe owner says pandemic restrictions unfair to restaurants and small businesses

The Northwest Territories flag flies on a flagpole in Ottawa on July 6, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Alberta man charged with threatening Northwest Territories public health officer

Police did reveal the nature of the threats, but said it was concerning

A healthy volunteer receives an injection in this undated handout image provided by Providence Therapeutics. Human clinical trials have begun in Toronto for a proposed COVID-19 vaccine by a Canadian company. Providence Therapeutics of Calgary says 60 subjects will be monitored for 13 months, with the first results expected next month. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Providence Therapeutics
*MANDATORY CREDIT*
Calgary company begins human clinical trials for its COVID-19 vaccine candidate

If successful, the vaccine could be released by the end of the year

Most Read