Vancouver, B.C. [December 3]—Vancouver sex workers and their allies have released “Know Your Rights” cards for sex workers in Canada ahead of the one-year anniversary of the federal laws and are urging the new federal government to make repealing the sex work laws a priority.
Rights not rescue
The Downtown Eastside Sex Workers United Against Violence (SWUAV) and Pivot Legal Society have launched a series of “Know Your Rights” cards to inform sex workers which of the activities related to their work are illegal. The cards will be distributed to sex workers in Vancouver and across Canada, with the hope that can help sex workers stay safe until the laws are changed.
“There remains a great deal of confusion among sex workers in Canada about how, where, and with whom they can safely do their work,” says Brenda Belak, lawyer and sex workers’ rights campaigner at Pivot Legal Society. “We’re confident that the new federal government recognizes the urgent need to end the criminalization of the sex trade that endangers sex workers. Until the current laws are repealed, however, sex workers need to know what aspects of their work are considered illegal and make them potential targets of police enforcement.”
The Conservative government’s Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act (Bill C-36) became law on December 6, 2014. Under the new sex work laws most aspects of the sex trade have been criminalized, replicating the impacts of the harmful laws struck down by the Supreme Court of Canada in its landmark Bedford ruling in 2013.
The “Know Your Rights” cards describe the restrictions on sex work under the new laws, which criminalize the purchase of sex by clients, advertising, and communication in specific public places, including at or next to schools, playgrounds, and daycares. Sex workers are prohibited from working together and with third parties, which could help keep them safer. The laws also prohibit working indoors in commercial enterprises, such as massage parlours.
“Women working indoors appreciate the safety these spaces provide, however, ongoing police crackdowns of these venues across Canada continue to create fear of police,” says Alison Clancey, executive director of Supporting Women’s Alternatives Network (SWAN), which supports migrant and immigrant sex workers. “As a result, when violence actually does occur, sex workers are disinclined to report it to police. We need the laws to stop putting sex workers in danger, and also allow sex workers to build relationships with the police who should be protecting them.”
The Vancouver Police Department created Guidelines together with community groups that require officers to prioritize sex workers’ safety over law enforcement. The rights card for sex workers about these Guidelines advises sex workers that the “POLICE SHOULD NOT harass, target, arrest or intimidate you for doing sex work” and encourages sex workers to report police misconduct. Pivot and SWUAV have asked other municipal police departments and the RCMP to adopt similar policies.
“We are really happy that this policy is in place, but regardless of how police may or may not enforce laws, it doesn’t change the fact that our work is illegal,” says DJ Joe, co-founder of SWUAV. “SWUAV members are worried that the laws force sex workers to continue to hide from police, work alone, and do their work under dangerous conditions.”
The “Know Your Rights” cards can be found here: