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Vancouver council aims to increase safety and services for sex workers

Task force recommends creation of permanent sex-work liaisons

Sex-worker advocate Jamie Lee Hamilton (left, with Raven Bowen; Mary Clare Zak, the city’s director of social policy; and Sue Davis) says the report passed by council is generally headed in the right direction, though she has some concerns about some of its proposed bylaws. Credit: Shauna Lewis

Two days before the Supreme Court of Canada paved the way toward fully decriminalizing sex work, Vancouver City Council unanimously passed a motion to accept recommendations intended to increase safety and services for sex workers here.

The report, prepared by the city’s Sex Work and Sexual Exploitation Task Force, acknowledged work already underway on support services and exit strategies, housing, bylaws, training and services for youth; examined recommendations from the Missing Women inquiry; and presented council with its own recommendations Dec 18.

The task force spent more than a year examining how best to address the health, safety and well-being of Vancouver’s sex workers, in consultation with a wide variety of stakeholders and community partners.

Of the task force’s recommendations, sex workers and their advocates say the creation of two permanent sex-work liaison positions, as recommended by the Missing Women inquiry, is the most crucial.

The liaisons will provide a link between the community, the Vancouver Police Department and the city when it comes to needed resources and policy implementation, they say, adding that the positions are the first of their kind in North America.

“In moving this recommendation forward, you are taking a huge step forward for our city and what we want to do,” says Angela Maria McDougall, executive director of Battered Women’s Support Services.

The organization has been approved for funding by the City of Vancouver for its work to help sex workers exit the industry.

“We’ve gone through a lot over the decades in wanting to address the issue of women’s safety,” McDougall says. “Over the decades we’ve come to this place today after lots of disappearances and murders and violence that often doesn’t get registered.”

McDougall calls the recommendation for a sex-trade liaison worker “essential.”

But while the report is groundbreaking, some sex workers and their advocates say it needs revision.

“Generally, I think it’s a very good report,” Jamie Lee Hamilton says. “But there are a few issues.”

Hamilton wants to ensure that the two liaison positions are filled by sex workers. “This is an issue of fostering trust,” she told council. “I really do believe that those two positions need to be filled from members of the community who already have experience with facets of the community.”

Hamilton also expressed concern with the report’s recommendations on licensing bylaws. She challenges the bylaw that would require two employees always be present in a sex-based establishment. That bylaw is “cost prohibitive,”  she says, as many sex-based businesses cannot afford to hire multiple staff to manage the premises.

Hamilton also thinks the bylaws restricting locking devices in the interior doors of sex-based establishments and imposing identification requirements on employees will infringe on people’s rights. “I know the intent is for safety,” she says, “but there are certain instances where people do want to have a locked door.”

She says protocols must be put in place around the identification requirements to protect people’s right to privacy. “Where does that government ID wind up?” she asks. “Whose hands does it get into? There needs to be really clear guidelines.”

Hamilton reiterates the need to build trust.

“It is not going to foster trust if people feel [the requirements] could be misused against them,” she says. “I think we’re moving in the right direction, but I think we need to look at those issues.”

The city says keeping a list of employees’ identifying information would ensure that businesses are not hiring underage workers.

“The purpose of that requirement is to guard against youth exploitation,” Tom Hammel, the city’s deputy chief licensing inspector, explained to council.

“The conditions that we are proposing be in the bylaw would be discretionary conditions. They are not conditions that would be applied broadly to all businesses,” Hammel added.

He said the city would take a case-by-case approach to how particular requirements are enforced. “The intent is to apply them to particular businesses [where] there is already evidence of safety risks because of previous history or violence or complaints from the public.”

City council says the task force’s report is a living document subject to changes over time.

Community organizations consulted for the report include the Aboriginal Front Door Society; Hustle, which provides programming and support services for male and trans sex workers; PACE, a sex-worker-led support organization; WISH, which operates a drop-in centre for female survival sex workers; and the Supporting Women's Alternatives Network (SWAN), to name a few.