‘All we’re asking for is a safe place to work’
A former massage parlour worker who spoke with The Telegram on condition of anonymity said if council doesn’t lift the moratorium on massage parlours, it will make her feel as if they haven’t listened to sex workers.
“I think that lifting something like this is an indication that the city is going to treat us the same way as they would treat any other business,” she said.
Another woman who has been working in the sex industry in and around St. John’s for over a decade told The Telegram that right now, because of the moratorium on new massage parlour applications, one person has a monopoly on the massage parlours in the city -- owning all three.
The woman, who asked to be identified only as A, said lifting the moratorium would mean there would no longer be a monopoly.
“Now the industry which has been stifled and smothered for years, and been struggling because of that, finally gets to take a lovely breath of fresh air in this metaphor, and it can breath and expand healthily, and people will be more safe because of that."
"These types of bylaws and restrictions make it so much more dangerous for people.” — A, anonymous sex industry worker
“By giving someone a choice about where to work, who to work for, what conditions they want to work in, how they want to work and when and where -- all these things really validates them and gives them greater power and control over their lives.”
A said she can’t speak for all people who have worked in massage parlours, but for her it’s been a good experience that enabled her to pay for a university education.
“I did not experience (negative) things, and perhaps that makes me privileged, but that’s why we need more variety in the places to work because if you’re experiencing those things, and you’re existing in a monopoly, that’s not something you can escape from or fix.”
A said all people are asking for is to have a safe place to work.
“I’d rather work inside than outside when it’s raining. I’d rather have people around me for my own safety and protection, I’d rather be able to work with other women than have to work on my own. These types of bylaws and restrictions make it so much more dangerous for people.”
Already approved in principle
At the council meeting Monday evening, Councillor Maggie Burton will move to lift the moratorium pending the acceptance of an amendment package to the current development regulations.
She said the amendment to the current development regulations would reflect what council already adopted in principle earlier this year in the draft regulations that are currently being reviewed by the province, but could take months longer before they are released.
The draft regulations added a new definition that differentiates massage parlours from massage therapists and other clinical uses. The new regulations also stipulate that new massage parlours would be 150 metres away from residential areas.
Burton is seeking to add that same amendment that council has already approved in the draft regulations to the current regulations they are presently working under.
“The justification for the moratorium was that we were working on new development regulations to alleviate residents’ issues brought forward back in 2015, and because we’ve approved in principle regulations that do exactly that, then I think that it’s time to move on,” said Burton.
“If your goal is to shut down massage parlours entirely, a moratorium doesn’t do that because there are already several that have had licenses since 2015. The real effect is that it hasn’t been to ban massage parlours, it’s been to give existing businesses a monopoly over the industry which gives workers less choice over their working environments.”
Burton said the reason she’s bringing this forward is because council hasn’t had an update from the province on the draft regulations.
“I would like to see movement on the current regulations in case it takes a lot longer than we anticipate for the new ones to be done.”
‘Reigniting past problems’
Former St. John’s councillor Jonathan Galgay said council worked hard four years ago to put the moratorium in place.
He said residents at that time who lived near a massage parlour experienced negative encounters with parlour clients who mistook their homes for the massage parlour, sometimes late at night.
“To lift the ban you’re only reigniting past problems. And even if you put provisions in place whereby they have to be 150 or 300 metres away from a residential neighbourhood, you’re still pushing the problem somewhere else.”
He said massage parlours could be pushed into areas such as Ropewalk Lane where there is a daycare centre.
“I know the sensitivity of the situation, I know that SHOP (Safe Harbour Outreach Project) has been out there speaking and so on, but at the end of the day, as the former councillor or as the councillor of the day, there was illegal activity that was happening.
“We had known that things were happening, and when we put the moratorium in place, we didn’t get any calls — the problem went away from that perspective.
“I know that there are still a number of them in the city, however from that perspective we deemed it to be a success.”
Galgay said he has one question for councillors:
“Would you want this next to you, just like those people downtown had to put up with for years?”
Safety a shared objective
Safe Harbour Outreach Project program coordinator Heather Jarvis says the moratorium was a superficial response to fear and stigma.
“We know that there were tensions around neighbourhoods, with residents and people who may own or work in massage parlours, but I think a lot of that was misunderstood, and not given an opportunity for people to work through to reach understanding with each other.”
She said the years since the moratorium has been in place has seen sex workers targeted and penalized because people businesses couldn’t move and workers were tied to a fixed address because the three permits were attached to an address, not a permit holder.
“We saw examples of neighbourhoods and landlords and other businesses actually being able to enact violence without a lot of consequences because people had to put up with it or lose their livelihood.”
She said it’s important for people to know that sex work inherently is about adults who have the ability to make a decision, and who for many different reasons are making a decision to engage in a sexual exchange and make money.
“This is not the same as human trafficking. It is not the same as violence.
Josh Smee is a board member with Happy City St. John’s, an organization that facilitates dialogue around civic issues.
In that role, he is a liaison with a steering committee called Living In Community that was formed two years ago, bringing stakeholders to one table, including law enforcement, residents, sex workers and community groups.
He said he’s learned the people who work in the sex industry are diverse, and the industry is widespread.
Most importantly, he said he’s learned that everyone on all sides of the discussion are looking for the same thing.
“Everyone’s looking for their community to be safe, right? And I think that’s been, for me personally, an important way of thinking this out -- is that there is a shared objective here, and so that’s a good place to start.”