Immigration min-ister Diane Finley tabled legislation May 16 that would prevent foreign exotic dancers from getting work permits in Canada, but opposition critics and industry workers say it’s a heavy-handed move that penalizes victims of abuse rather than abusers.
Bill C-57 would amend the Immigration And Refugee Protection Act to grant the immigration minister power to order immigration officers to deny work permits to anyone she says is “at risk of being subjected to humiliating or degrading treatment, including sexual exploitation.”
But critics of the legislation say the government should instead take positive action to protect the labour rights of exotic dancers.
“They need to force labour regulations in clubs, not just for foreign dancers but for Canadians,” says Wendy Babcock, a member of Sex Professionals Of Canada. “That’s how they can stop the exploitation of women, by giving us labour rights, not taking away rights.
“Under this legislation, trafficked women will be looked at as criminals and prostitutes,” Babcock continues. “If she’s a victim of abuse, she’ll be less likely to report it for fear of deportation.”
Under current legislation, foreign nationals can apply for work permits in Canada for jobs for which domestic labour is scarce. As examples, exotic dancers, live-in caregivers and agricultural workers are all in short supply.
In previous years, hundreds of exotic dancers came into Canada through the temporary worker program, but since the Conservatives came to power that number has dropped dramatically. Last year only 17 women were granted temporary work permits as exotic dancers.
According to a May 16 ministry press release, the government sees stopping foreign dancers from entering Canada as a way to maintain exotic dancers’ faith in the Canadian system.
“For those people applying to enter our country, Canada represents hope, safety and a new start,” says Finley in the release. “This is one more measure that helps ensure that this hope is not shattered through exploitation, and that the expectation of safety within Canada is preserved.”
Despite repeated requests for an interview, Finley’s office did not respond before press time. But in interviews with mainstream media the day the legislation was introduced, Finley referred to the previous Liberal government’s Strippergate scandal. In 2004 then-immigration minister Judy Sgro resigned after she fast-tracked a residency permit for an exotic dancer who had worked on Sgro’s reelection campaign.
NDP immigration critic Bill Siksay says Finley’s legislation is just partisan politics.
“The mind boggles that the Conservatives would introduce something like this, basically to take a cheap shot at the former Liberal government,” he says.
Liberal immigration critic Omar Alghabra says he agrees that the move is just a Conservative political tactic.
“This bill was purely intended to grab juicy headlines and appeal to [the Conservatives’] core supporters who believe in legislating morality,” he says. “If we really want to address any perceived problems within the exotic dancing industry it should be addressed within Human Resources Development Canada. They are the ones who issue market decisions and give advice to Immigration on visas. If we have problems in the industry, why aren’t we stepping in?”
“The way to deal with the problem is to deal with it on the employer side in Canada,” says Siksay. “If there was an employer who was running a business that was degrading or humiliating, that employer should never have been given a temporary worker certificate,” he says.
Both critics also say the government must do more to address the exploitation foreign workers face in other industries.
“There are many work situations in Canada that if we were being fair and just, we wouldn’t allow people to work in those places,” says Siksay. “We’ve seen agricultural workers come in and work in unsafe workplaces. We’ve seen construction workers come in and be paid under the minimum wage. We’ve seen live-in care givers become basically indentured servants. This legislation doesn’t address those. It was intended to be a sensationalist piece.”
When asked whether or not he would vote against the legislation, Alghabra equivocated.
“I’d have to consult with my caucus first, but at first glance I’m very skeptical of this bill. There are a lot of nuanced positions we can take based on the consultation,” he says.