A move by the Town of Newmarket to crack down on body rub parlours could actually help drive human trafficking underground, according to the Women's Support Network of York Region.
It would more difficult to offer assistance to anyone working there who may be a victim of human trafficking, and would also hurt sex workers who are not being trafficked and are trying to make a living, said Jacqueline Benn-John, executive director of the Newmarket-based centre.
"We are concerned on our end because so much of this will just end up going further underground. It isn't really a solution," said Benn-John.
"There is a difference between sex work and human trafficking. It's important to understand those body rub parlours, like other establishments, there might be people being trafficked, but there are also people engaged in sex work. Instead of pushing it underground with a focus on regulation and surveillance, from our perspective, we want to make sure that there are supports in place."
Town staff are currently working on an overhaul of Newmarket's bylaw regarding body rub parlours to more clearly differentiate health spas from erotic massage.
Under the current bylaw, the definition of a body rub parlour is broad enough that erotic massage businesses can apply for a business licence alongside day spas and osteopath clinics.
At a council meeting Monday, Councillor Trevor Morrison argued the bylaw permits businesses that may be engaging in human trafficking to seem legitimate.
"The implications of this bylaw are pretty significant because it has been shown that some kind of body rub parlours can be used for human trafficking. So I know that myself and my council colleagues are determined to act quickly on our responsibility to eliminate human trafficking from Newmarket," said Morrison.
"This bylaw will give the town and the York Regional Police the authority to make our residents safer."
According to the town's manager of regulatory services, Flynn Scott, a new bylaw would create classifications for businesses without registered health professionals, such as massage therapist, osteopaths and naturopaths.
York Regional Police spokesperson Laura Nicolle confirmed that police have had multiple human trafficking investigations regarding body rub parlours in the region, but wasn't aware of any in Newmarket.
Although not calling on the town to abandon the idea altogether, Benn-John said the new bylaw would not make a dent in the problem of human trafficking.
Such businesses are certainly a part of the overall problem, but a small part, and going after them does nothing to address the underlying issues that cause human trafficking. Instead, she is concerned that it will pull focus away from the need for systemic change.
"Human trafficking and exploitation are happening across the region, and we get concerned when there is so much focus on one thing like body rub parlours. So is this going to be a solution to the problem? Not at all," said Benn-John.
"This is a problem that has been happening long before the establishment of any of these parlours. If anything, COVID-19 has only exacerbated the problem. We need more than just this kind of regulation."
The town's efforts would be better spent on supporting existing programs in the community to combat human trafficking, she said.
The town could also be a voice to advocate for a more effective regional strategy that would ensure consistent service delivery across York Region and address underlying issues that make women vulnerable to human trafficking, such as the need for affordable housing.
"Having some conversations together to address this in a more comprehensive way is important and would definitely go a long way," Benn-John said.
Flynn told council amending the bylaw is his department's "No. 1 priority for new bylaws."
"We are aware that human trafficking is a significant component of some of these more unlawful parlours in town," said Scott.
"We have begun the early stages of drafting and engaged with partners at the York Regional Police to receive their comments. We have also worked with our communications department to start the public engagement process.
"We will be getting some messaging out as early next week, a survey. There is a lot that goes into this, a bylaw like this has a lot of moving parts to it, so we are moving as quickly as we can."
Benn-John said that the women's support network would be willing to be part of those consultations and even to make former victims available to provide their experiences.
Town staff intend to have a new bylaw presented to council in the early part of the second quarter of this year.
If you are a victim of human trafficking and need help you can call the women's support network's 24/7 crisis line at 1-800-263-6734. Other services such as emergency support and housing can be accessed by calling 905-895-3646 ext. 112 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.