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'They just want to survive': Newmarket sparks outcry after instructing some massage parlours to halt operations

Advocacy groups say no Asian parlours able to get licensed so far under town's new bylaw
Sense Massage
Stock photo

Newmarket resident Tina Lee said she faces a dilemma under the town’s new licensing system for personal wellness establishments.

Lee said she owns a small massage parlour, though the pandemic has limited its staff to her and one business partner. But she said she could not get a licence under the town’s new business classification, and received a message April 28 that she now faces a $4,000 per day fine if she operates.

“I don’t know what to do,” Lee told NewmarketToday through a translator. “If I operate, I get fined $4,000 a day. If I don’t operate, I couldn’t pay for rent or other expenses right now.”

Advocacy groups have renewed calls for Newmarket to end its new licensing policy as word spread that the town has ordered businesses to stop operations if still unlicensed. More than 50 organizations have signed a letter from Toronto-based Asian and migrant sex worker support group Butterfly opposing the ongoing policy.

Town council passed a new bylaw last year requiring licensing for all businesses offering massages from those other than a registered massage therapist. It included requirements for proof of training from an accredited institution or alternative accreditation if no such training exists. The town began to implement the rules in February.

Butterfly executive director Elene Lam said the policy is discriminatory, effectively targeting Asian massage parlours, with the town unfairly characterizing them as places of human trafficking and sex work. She said not all of them do involve sex work and that the policy is harming workers.

“They just want to survive. We just want to understand why the city tries so hard to stop the people working, stop people’s livelihood,” Lam said. “Many workers speak out. They are not trafficking victims, they are not sex workers.” 

Lam said they are aware of six Asian massage parlours that have been unable to get a licence from Newmarket, and they know of no Asian parlours that have been able to get licensed.

The town said it aimed to provide bylaw enforcement with the tools to “shut down illegal activity in our community which has been impacting neighbouring businesses and community members.”

“The town’s licensing division has spent many months working directly with businesses that fall into the new personal wellness establishments classification to help them through the process,” the municipality said. “The town has offered a number of flexible options to business owners and attendants to ensure that language is not a barrier during any phase of this process.”

The town said four businesses have now received a licence, and it will work with businesses that have not received one to bring them into compliance. 

The town did not directly address if any enforcement action was happening against unlicensed businesses.

Lee said she attempted to get through the licensing process, but it was not approved, and her training was not recognized. She said she has worked on her English since moving to Canada 10 years ago and can speak it well enough, but she was unable to get into an accredited program in the province because it is not at high enough level. 

The massage worker said she is not a sex worker, and the work should not necessarily be conflated. She said she started her business six months before the pandemic as it was her profession back in China, investing $100,000 to get started.

“It’s a really small business,” she said. “I got a (business) partner so we could have more flexible times to take care of my family and my parents.” 

The policy has been the subject of substantive debate, with Butterfly and other organizations protesting it. The town has said it was acting to address the complaints of residents, with councillors making comments about pushing out sex work and addressing human trafficking. 

“Newmarket council underwent a lengthy public process, listening to feedback from many organizations and residents representing various perspectives. This feedback was carefully considered,” the town said, adding it would review the bylaw in a year and implement potential changes then. 

But York Region released a report refuting the idea of targeting massage parlour for sex trafficking. Manager of regulatory services Flynn Scott has also said the bylaw was not made to address human trafficking, which is “outside the scope of municipal law enforcement", and would not track any data on whether the businesses impacted have links to trafficking, which is police jurisdiction.

Lee said she chose Newmarket for her business due to a connection, and it seemed like an inviting place. But she said the increased accreditation requirements are unreasonable.

“After the pandemic, everything has become so expensive," Lee said. "Instead of helping us, why do they need to oppress us?”

Lam said the policy is effectively racist, and the town needs to change. 

“Low-income women, Asians, are disproportionately affected,” Lam said. “They don’t want to be seen as racist, they need to take the action to remove this systematic racism.”