Opinion
2 min

Sex workers are dying and the Trudeau Liberals are doing nothing

The Liberals can’t say they’re fighting sexual violence while they maintain the status quo on sex work laws

Finance Minister Bill Morneau speaks at an event co-hosted by the Canadian Club and the Empire Club in Toronto on March 1, 2018. Credit: The Canadian Press/ Christopher Katsarov

The Canadian Liberal government has taken notice of the anti–sexual violence and harassment movements that have rocked industry after industry. After all, it’s taken down one of their own cabinet ministers, as well as a senior PMO staffer.

It has introduced a bill to strengthen sexual harassment protections for federally-regulated workers and pledged to boost legal aid funding for victims.

“Movements like #MeToo and #TimesUp have shed light on disturbing situations and behaviours that too often go unreported,” Finance Minister Bill Morneau said in his budget speech last month.

But there’s one class of workers that the Liberal government won’t help.

Despite their promises, Trudeau’s Liberals have taken no action to change the Harper-era sex work laws that make that work more dangerous and in some cases, deadly.

Like workers across industries and of all genders, sex workers are subjected to sexual harassment and violence from managers, clients and co-workers. And while sex workers actually face lower levels of daily violence than people in some other professions — emergency room nurses, for instance — they don’t have access to many of the protections that help keep other people safe.

And that’s a sentiment Morneau emphatically believes.

“We would want to get rid of this bill just as the NDP would,” he said about Harper’s sex work legislation in 2015. “It’s a bill that puts people in danger, and we would not stand for it.”

Except that the Liberals are standing for it, even though they’ve expressed serious concerns that the laws might not even be constitutional.

We might soon find that’s the case. In November 2015, Hamad Anwar and Tiffany Harvey were charged with human trafficking, procuring, advertising and materially benefiting from someone else’s sexual services in November 2015, when police in London, Ont, raided Fantasy World Escorts. The human trafficking charges were eventually dropped, and now the pair plan to contest the constitutionality of the laws.

But while London police were quick to target people for having consensual sex, they ignored warnings last year that a London man, Oluwatobi Boyede, had assaulted a sex worker. He then later allegedly assaulted another sex worker and is also alleged to have murdered Josie Glenn, a 26-year-old sex worker.

While some might argue that this was simply policing gone wrong, it’s an illustration of just how broken Canada’s sex work laws are. By making it illegal to purchase sex, sex workers lose power during negotiations with clients, who will often demand outcalls because they’re worried about police raids.

And by continuing to stigmatize sex work, the laws feed directly into the attitudes of people who would dismiss violence against sex workers.

“The male officer had no sympathy. It was a waste of his time. They dismissed the whole thing,” the person who reported Boyede to the police told the London Free Press.

In Mississauga and Hamilton, three Asian sex workers have been murdered since 2015, while six have been arrested, detained or deported. Advocates say that the combination of repressive sex work laws and immigration laws push many Asian sex workers into isolation, making them even more vulnerable to predators.

Sex workers are workers. And the Liberal government can’t claim that it’s trying to make sure all workers are safe from sexual violence until it fully decriminalizes sex work.

The government had well over two years to make those changes. It’s time is up.