Coalition of reform advocates want sex workers centred in discussion
As a parliamentary committee begins its review of Canada’s prostitution laws, the Canadian Alliance for Sex Work Law Reform (CASWLR) is calling on the committee to centre sex workers in the discussions.
Beginning Tuesday, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights is looking at the Protection for Communities and Exploited Persons Act (PCEPA), the Harper-era legislation enacted after the Supreme Court of Canada declared Canada’s previous sex-work laws unconstitutional. The CASWLR, made up of 25 Canadian sex worker rights groups and allies, will testify to the committee that the 2014 legislation has reproduced the Charter violations of the old regime and added new offences, which increase the vulnerability of sex workers to human rights violations.
CASWLR national coordinator Jenn Clamen says her group wants to avoid the dichotomous conversations between rights advocates and prohibitionists from past parliamentary sex work discussions.
“When you want to study a law, talk to people who are impacted by the law. And those people are sex workers,” she says.
“We are really hoping that they’re going to centre sex workers in this discussion…This can’t just be a conversation about how people feel about sex work because people are doing sex work, despite what people feel about sex work. And you need to recognize that their human rights matter as well.”
The PCEPA included a clause that the legislation was subject to parliamentary review to study its impact after five years. When the deadline expired, the CASWLR filed a Charter challenge against the PCEPA last April, claiming the law violates sex workers’ rights to security, personal autonomy, life, liberty, free expression, free association and equality. The case is currently before the courts.
On Friday, the committee will hear from the HIV Legal Network, a member of the CASWLR.
“I think they need to hear directly from sex workers how harmful the law has been over the last seven years, and why they need to repeal it immediately,” says Sandra Ka Hon Chu, director of research and advocacy at the HIV Legal Network.
“They need to repeal the whole law. They need to remove any sex-work-specific criminal offences and consult with sex workers about what they need in terms of access to protections — if they want it — access to housing access to services. Because we know the law has done nothing to protect sex workers or communities or exploited persons — like the title of the legislation. They just need to repeal the entire law.”
According to a Department of Justice fact sheet, the PCEPA’s objectives were to protect sex workers, protect communities and children from harms caused by sex work, and reduce the demand for sexual services. For the first time in Canadian history, the law criminalized purchasing sexual services or communicating for that purpose. “[E]very time the prostitution transaction takes place, an offence is committed by the purchaser,” said the fact sheet.
The legislation also criminalized receiving money or material benefit from another person’s sex work and advertising another person’s sexual services. For sex workers themselves, the law made it illegal to communicate to sell sexual services near playgrounds, schools or day-care centres.
Though sex workers cannot be prosecuted for selling or advertising sexual services, the laws targeting purchasers force them to work in a “context of criminality,” says Clamen. She says that clients are paranoid about police detection, offer less information about themselves, and mistrust the sex worker. “It doesn’t allow for clear communication. It doesn’t allow for informed consent. And that that has serious impacts on your sexual autonomy.”
According to the CASWLR, the PCEPA prohibits sex workers from “communicating and negotiating conditions and establishing consent to sexual activity,” obtaining identification information from clients and screening for the sake of safety and working in “secure and shared indoor workspaces.” The law also prevents them from establishing relationships with other sex workers to share knowledge and pool resources. They are also denied the ability to establish “working and safety relationships with managers, receptionists, drivers, interpreters, partners, peers and security.”
The isolation these conditions create increases the likelihood of exploitation, violence, eviction and poor working conditions, and migrant sex workers are vulnerable to loss of immigration status and deportation, said the CASWLR.