Toronto Bylaws Require Massage Parlours to Unlock Doors
Being robbed left Yan traumatized. It was just before Christmas last year when a man peered into her Toronto massage parlour, pushed the unlocked door open, went in and throttled her. When he demanded money, she gave him the $180 in her wallet.
Since then, Yan says she has known only anxiety. It was not the first time she had been robbed, but circumstances since then — and city bylaws — have compounded Yan’s troubles.
Yan, not her real name, is one of about 2,500 mostly Asian workers in Toronto’s 400 massage and body rub parlours. She is what the city labels a holistic practitioner, or an unregistered massage therapist.
Forty such practitioners and workers in parlours, all women, have been robbed from December 2019 to March this year, says Elene Lam, executive director of Butterfly, a network to support Asian and migrant sex workers.
One reason their parlours get broken into is they are not allowed to lock the doors. A bylaw stipulates that they may lock doors if there’s a customer inside, “provided that whenever the doors are locked the time at which the doors will be unlocked shall be posted in a manner clearly visible from outside the holistic centre.”
When asked for a rationale for asking workers to keep doors unlocked when there’s no client inside, a city spokesperson told the Star by email this week, “Regulations relating to locked doors in BRPs (body rub parlours) was enacted in 1975 to safeguard inspectors’ full and unencumbered access to inspect the establishment.”
On the calls to remove restrictions on locking doors, they said, “Staff will continue to review these and other provisions as part of the future report on BRPs and holistic centres.” The report detailing the review is not expected until 2021.
Meanwhile, Yan says not being allowed to lock the door “haunts me like a shadow.” It leaves her in a constant and heightened state of anxiety at work. Locking the door is a safety measure. “I can see outside the glass door and decide if it is safe to open it,” she says in Mandarin, through an interpreter.
Last week, Butterfly wrote a letter asking Toronto Mayor John Tory, city councillors and other agencies to put “an immediate end to racial profiling and discriminatory, excessive, targeted inspections and prosecution of holistic practitioners” by bylaw officers.
Through an access to information request to the city, Butterfly found that the number of investigations of holistic practitioners rose from 611 or 3.7 per cent of all investigations in 2013 to 2,585 or 19.3 per cent of all investigations in 2015. This data was published in a 2018 survey of holistic practitioners’ experiences with bylaw enforcement and police by four advocacy groups.
Some of the practitioners were charged with infractions such as: locking the door when they are alone or installing a camera for safety and privacy reasons, Lam says. In the first 10 months of 2017, there were 255 charges issued; the stated reason on 41 of them was “table mat not in a good repair.”
Many bylaws related to holistic centres and body rub parlours were created without consultations with the workers, says Lam, who is also spokesperson for the Coalition Against Abuse by Bylaw Enforcement.
“It’s not just police who should be defunded but also bylaw officers,” says Lam, referring to calls to reform police that have arisen amid protests in Canada and the U.S. over police violence and anti-Black racism.
Over the past three years, more than a dozen rights organizations have been meeting with various city agencies asking the city to prioritize worker safety and human and labour rights over excessive inspections and arbitrary prosecutions.
This year, the workers’ situation simply worsened. Many of them were already reeling from rising anti-Asian racism in January with the onset of COVID-19. Subsequent pandemic closures slashed their wages. Many of the workers are migrants or undocumented; without documentation they were unable to access government income supports like the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB).
When Ontario moved to Phase 2 of the reopening late in June and the city’s public health department allowed a conditional reopening of these parlours on June 26, relief appeared to be in sight.
But even that reopening turned fraught. On July 1, even as many Canadians celebrated the day with pride, bylaw officers ticketed “multiple” parlours, advocates say.
“At a time when the city should be supporting businesses to reopen … these workers are being punished simply for doing their jobs, despite having received written permission to do so,” Butterfly says in its letter to the city.
Yan was one of those ticketed $880 that day. While one bylaw officer was writing her ticket, the other was conducting a search. “He was looking under the table, my belongings, my rest space.”
Failed to comply with declared emergency, the ticket says.
The city accepts this was an error. “In this particular case, the individual has already been contacted by MLS (Municipal Licensing and Standards) and advised of the error and that no further action will be taken,” the media spokesperson told the Star. “The city is continuing to review training for bylaw officers to ensure they have the latest information around emergency orders and bylaws” evolving in response to COVID-19.
But Butterfly’s letter to the city says there is more than one case and Lam wants the city to drop all erroneous tickets without requiring the workers to fill out any identifying forms.
The city spokesperson, however, says the city is only aware of a single case.
“To the best of the city’s knowledge, there was only one ticket issued in error,” the spokesperson said Thursday. “The city did not receive any further information from the complainant that would indicate other tickets issued in error.”
In its letter, Butterfly asks the city to immediately stop ticketing parlours for reopening, to stop charging workers when they lock doors and to ensure zero retaliation for workers who report abuse at the hands of bylaw officers.
This is the fourth time since January that Yan’s parlour has been raided. “They’re rude. They kick the door and come in. They use a torch (flashlight) to look at every corner, even in my vanity bag.”
“I feel angry,” says Yan, weeping over the phone. “Their attitude was so disrespectful. Canada is a place where people are treated with human rights. They did not treat me as human.”
Yan says she has Canadian citizenship which emboldens her just enough to speak out, albeit anonymously. Many others who are on work permits don’t. Even so, Yan didn’t go to the police after she was robbed. She faces language barriers and her many interactions with bylaw enforcers have broken her trust. In any case, she doesn’t understand why people like her are being singled out for such treatment.
“Why am I being treated this way? I’m not robbing anyone. I’m just surviving. I’m not harming society. I’m contributing to it.”
Shree Paradkar is a Toronto-based columnist covering issues around race and gender for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @ShreeParadkar
Toronto Exotic Massage Home