Today, a Kitchener judge has ruled that sections of Canada's prostitution law violates Canada's constitution. Action Canada welcomes the judge’s decision that Canada’s sex work laws violate Charter rights. These laws force sex workers to work alone, resulting in greater isolation and a dangerous working environment. Sex workers say criminal laws harm them — so we should listen! Over 130 organizations across the country agree, and have called upon the Government of Canada to decriminalize sex work as a first step to protecting and respecting the human rights of all sex workers—this begins with the removal of criminal and immigration laws that criminalize sex work.
Sex workers—people who exchange sexual services for money or goods—are criminalized, disproportionately surveilled, overpoliced, and denied their fundamental rights. Sex workers who live intersecting discriminations due to poverty, their visible presence in public spaces, their racial and social positioning, and their gender identity are disproportionately targeted by law enforcement and institutional, legal and societal violence. Much of this treatment results from the stigmatization of sex work itself and a lack of recognition for the agency that sex workers exercise in their daily lives.
Various human rights organizations, UN bodies, and courts have concluded that criminalization of the sex industry creates conditions for exploitation and violates sex workers’ human rights. In 2014, a landmark legal challenge (Attorney General v Bedford) found that the laws in Canada that address sex work violate sex workers constitutional right to safety and all such laws were struck down. However, in spite of this, the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act (PCEPA) was enacted in 2014. The PCEPA defines all sex work as exploitation and frames all sex workers as victims and all clients and third parties as criminals. A primary objective of the legislation is to eradicate prostitution. The new laws include provisions that directly criminalize sex workers, as well as provisions that criminalize virtually all elements of the sex industry.
Since PCEPA came into force, sex workers have reported increased antagonism with law enforcement, targeted violence and fear of reporting, unwanted and unsolicited law enforcement of Indigenous, Black, trans, migrant, drug using sex workers, and detainment and deportations of Asian and migrant sex workers. Police misuse and overuse human trafficking laws to target sex workers and clients, creating increasingly unsafe and marginalized conditions for sex workers.
Protecting and respecting the human rights of sex workers requires a holistic response. Decriminalization—the removal of criminal and immigration sex work specific laws—is a first and necessary step. A holistic plan for sex work law reform includes concrete measures to address discrimination and inequality in all forms: poverty, inadequate housing, inadequate healthcare, lack of access to safe transportation, inadequate access to legal aid, over-criminalization and overincarceration, and ongoing problems with youth protection systems. This further includes access to basic labour and occupational safety protections.