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LETTER: Bylaw 'taking unbearable toll' on Asian massage workers

'We hold onto a sliver of hope that the public and advocacy groups will hear us and use their platforms and voices to amplify ours,' writes organization advocating against Newmarket's licensing of alternative massage parlours  
2021-06-16-Ivy Chan massage worker - JQ(1)
Newmarket body rub parlour worker Ivy Chan is opposing new regulations to restrict the service. File photo/NewmarketToday

NewmarketToday welcomes your letters to the editor at debora@newmarkettoday.ca. Please include your daytime phone number and address (for verification of authorship, not publication). This is an open letter to organizations dealing with gender-based violence and violence against women, and social justice organizations and allies in Newmarket and surrounding areas sent to NewmarketToday from Butterfly, an organization that advocates for Asian migrant sex workers. 

We are speaking now out of desperation and the hope that someone will hear us. 

The Town of Newmarket pretends to listen to us but continues to infantilize, demonize and endanger us. They make decisions they claim are good for us but that only serve them. We can only hope that this time, our voices will be carried from the margins into the spotlight. 

We have no illusions about the barriers we face in life — we are low-income Asian migrant women constantly profiled by police, we face debt after two years out of work during the pandemic, and most of us speak limited or no English — but until recently, our spirit has been strong. This bylaw is changing that and testing the limits of our strength. How much more fear and abuse do we have to endure before we can simply live and work in peace?

Politicians will tell you we are victims of human trafficking because it is the narrative that suits them, justifying the endless attempts to shut us down, to flush us out. We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again: we are not trafficking victims. We have limited job opportunities without English fluency, and we choose our work because the conditions are better than our other options. The flexible hours let us care for our families.

We take pride in our work and earn our living with our hands. Some of us may engage in sex work, and others may not. This should not and does not matter when it comes to our basic rights.

If there is a moral threat in Newmarket, it is not coming from us but from the politicians and police who created this bylaw and who continue to punish us just for existing. 

Many of us have worked in Newmarket for a long time, some of us for more than 10 years. Newmarket is our home and community, and we want to live here in peace. But this bylaw is taking an unbearable toll on our lives. We live in fear every day — for ourselves, our livelihoods, and our families. The city threatens us with daily fines of $4,000 to $5,000 for remaining open without licences that they do not want to give us. Tickets are left on our doors, driving away our clients.

All of this comes on top of the standard police harassment and intimidation all Asian massage workers face. They wait outside our businesses, taking photos. They send undercover officers to solicit sex work, which some of us feel pressured to provide, then fine us up to $1,800. They barge into our businesses claiming we are operating illegally, but they won’t let us defend ourselves because we don’t speak fluent English. They won’t even wait for a translator.

Police deny they are racially profiling us, yet we are met with a level of paternalism, condescension, disrespect and straight-up abuse faced by no other businesses in Newmarket. We cannot take one more ticket, not one more fine, not one more police invasion. 

If Newmarket politicians had their way, our businesses would shutter and we would all be run out of town or be forced into jobs that no one else wants to work. These jobs, like the personal support positions suggested by Councillor Christina Bisanz, have low pay, long hours and awful conditions. Rather than take those jobs, which would be impossible for those of us who are older or have physical challenges, we would be pushed to continue our work underground, placing us in worse danger than before. 

Frankly, we feel utterly lost at this point. We are on the brink of hopelessness, exhausted from fighting to survive each day in systems built to keep us down. But we are also determined and know we are in the right. We hold onto a sliver of hope that the public and advocacy groups will hear us and use their platforms and voices to amplify ours. 

Even now, we are terrified to speak up out of fear that it will only bring more police to our door. No one — not police, not politicians, not even the public — needs to be our saviour. We do not ask for your pity, only your support. Do not listen to the city’s claims that they want to protect us. Do not let them make our livelihoods illegal. Listen to us when we say that law enforcement are our primary aggressors and abusers, that those who claim to protect us only endanger us more.

We are not dishonourable trash to be cleansed from the city. We are not expendable labourers who can be coerced into the back-breaking, low-paying jobs they think we deserve. We are not helpless trafficking victims in need of rescue. We are human beings who can choose our own path, make our own decisions, and support ourselves with dignity if they’ll only let us. 

To those who believe in and advocate for human rights, we ask that you hear us, remember us and include us in your work — not as voiceless victims who must be saved but as autonomous allies who can speak for ourselves. We are not voiceless. This is our voice, and we are asking you to stand with us. 

Help us by using your power, position, platform, and connections to speak up to Mayor John Taylor, Newmarket councillors, the MPP and MP for Newmarket-Aurora, and other officials.

Tell them:

  • Listen to us when we tell you we are not trafficking victims — we are speaking, but they choose not to hear. 
  • Drop the existing charges and cancel our tickets. Stop sending law enforcement to profile and charge us, undercover or otherwise. 
  • Remove the absurd licensing bylaw that is clearly intended to drive us out of business.
  • Stop targeting Asian and other massage workers and sex workers, eliminate the discrimination against us, recognize our value, and promote inclusivity and equality for the whole community.

Elene Lam and Starus Chan, for Butterfly