Commons report fails sex workers: advocacy group

Criminalization leaves women working in unsafe conditions

A report from the House of Commons Subcommittee on Solicitation Laws fell short of the measures required to ensure the health, safety and human rights of sex workers, according to the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network.

"After hearing the testimony of sex workers and sex worker organizations, the subcommittee had a chance to make informed recommendations on how to modernize Canada's outdated laws on prostitution," said Joanne Csete, the network's executive director.

"Instead, what we have is a report, years in the making, that does too little to protect sex workers or to promote their dignity and equality."

The report, released last month, was three years in the making and based on more than 300 interviews with prostitutes, social workers, lawyers and other members of the public. It made several recommendations, including advising Parliament to treat addiction, poverty, underage prostitution and human trafficking as serious issues, and recommends that sufficient resources be provided to tackle these problems.

However, the report failed to make any recommendations regarding solicitation laws and did not recommend the decriminalization of sex work or the protection of the human rights of sex workers.

In 2005, the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network released a report, Sex, work, rights: reforming Canadian criminal laws on prostitution, detailing how existing laws, and the way in which they're enforced, push sex workers into situations that put their health and safety at risk, and leave them open to stigma and discrimination, violence, and possible exposure to HIV.

The report stated that criminalizing acts of prostitution puts sex workers under constant threat of arrest, meaning they often do not have time to assess the risk of taking a particular client or to negotiate terms (like insisting on safe sex). Criminalization also pits police and sex workers against each other, effectively alienating sex workers from the protective services of police if a client becomes aggressive or violent.

The Legal Network is calling on the federal government to fulfill its responsibility to uphold sex workers' human rights by:

• Protecting sex workers' rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and international human rights law by repealing the four Criminal Code sections that make "communicating," "bawdy-houses" and "living on the avails" illegal; and

• Recognizing sex work as work under employment standards and occupational health and safety laws.

"We need to decriminalize sex work and recognize it as legitimate work," said Csete. "Only then will sex workers, especially women, be able to legally take steps to make their working conditions more safe and secure."

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