The City of Winnipeg may soon stop licensing escort agencies and body rub parlours altogether, following heated debate over how the adult businesses are regulated.
In a new report, city staff ask council to repeal all licensing rules for those businesses, as well as their practitioners, from the Doing Business in Winnipeg bylaw. The city would also explore a partnership with the National Human Trafficking Education Centre to help prevent both trafficking and sexual exploitation.
"We had allegations at the city that we were acting poorly from all sides, including (from) body rub practitioners and escorts themselves. All things being equal, they wanted to see this law abolished," said Coun. Sherri Rollins, head of the protection and community services committee.
"Resoundingly, when the stakeholder engagement happened, (licensing) was not a measure that (workers) said made them feel safer."
The new proposal was welcomed by local organizations that have alleged granting licences for businesses linked to the sex trade amounted to the city profiting off exploitation.
"I am very impressed with the City of Winnipeg (for) taking the time to listen and learn about the sexual exploitation," said Diane Redsky, executive director of the Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata Centre.
The city was acting like "a pimp" by taking fees so far, Redsky said Thursday.
“We had allegations at the city that we were acting poorly from all sides, including (from) body rub practitioners and escorts themselves. All things being equal, they wanted to see this law abolished.” — Coun. Sherri Rollins
"I think anybody who profits off the sexual exploitation of women and girls is a pimp… You can be an individual, you can be a business or you can be a government and still meet that definition."
Redsky said she hopes repealing the licences will mark a key step toward shutting down such operations.
Joy Smith, who runs the Joy Smith Foundation to combat human trafficking, also applauded the proposal.
"This is a first step. It makes a very strong statement in our city that we want to make our city safe for our youth and families. I think it’s a game-changer," said Smith.
Coun. Scott Gillingham said the licences can end without increasing safety risks.
"The Winnipeg Police Service has all the powers that they need to ensure that illegal activity and exploitation is not occurring in these places… regardless of whether these places are licensed," said Gillingham. "We cannot, as a city, be inadvertently facilitating human trafficking and the exploitation of vulnerable people."
The report does not specify if affected businesses would still be expected to operate without licences.
A group that represents local sex trade workers says the proposal has sparked many concerns, including whether it will lead to business closures and job losses.
“I am very impressed with the City of Winnipeg (for) taking the time to listen and learn about the sexual exploitation.” —Diane Redsky, executive director of the Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata Centre
"It is unclear to us what their purpose of repealing the licensing is going to mean. We are concerned about ourselves, as workers, and also our colleagues," said Amy, a member of Sex Workers of Winnipeg Action Coalition, who did not want her last name published.
Amy said the coalition has lobbied to have sex work treated more similarly to other professions, with less police surveillance.
"We want to be treated like every other member of society, in terms of not having to have heavy-handed laws that further stigmatize us as sex workers."
Current rules require licensed escort agencies and body rub parlours to operate only in the downtown area, while workers must provide photos of themselves, along with addresses and phone numbers, to obtain a licence.
Amy said the report unfairly conflates sex trafficking and exploitation with sex work, furthering the profession’s stigma.
City rules for the industry triggered extensive debate last year, when a previous proposal aimed to update the bylaw rules.
“We cannot, as a city, be inadvertently facilitating human trafficking and the exploitation of vulnerable people.” — Coun. Scott Gillingham
Those rules would have required body rub parlours to keep a working closed-circuit television camera system in reception areas and install panic alarms in all rooms used by practitioners. New staff training and fees were also proposed.
Instead of passing the new rules, council delayed the matter to allow for additional consultation.
Rollins said the new call to repeal the licences reflects feedback from workers. "Largely, they viewed the bylaw as (penalizing)… (Repealing the rules) it clears a big issue off the table and we can start working on others."
The councillor said she expects to suggest amendments to the proposal, which would further focus on safety and violence prevention.
If council approves, a future partnership with the National Human Trafficking Education Centre could provide free training for some organizations that serve children or youth to help them better recognize the signs of sexual exploitation and human trafficking.
The city could also consider requiring vehicles-for-hire drivers to take such training.
Council’s executive policy committee is scheduled to vote on the proposal on Jan. 19.
Born and raised in Winnipeg, Joyanne loves to tell the stories of this city, especially when politics is involved. Joyanne became the city hall reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press in early 2020.