Sarah Leamon: Human trafficking is often misunderstood—and it's certainly not limited to the sex trade

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      Earlier this month, the Commons committee on justice and human rights released a report on human trafficking. The document, Moving Forward in the Fight Against Human Trafficking in Canada, was created after several months of community consultation. The objective is reducing—and ultimately ending—human trafficking in Canada. 

      With 17 recommendations, the report hopes to provide salient solutions to the ongoing issue of human trafficking. 

      The recommendations range in their scope and application. From better educating judges to working with financial institutions in order to develop better methods for tracking money, the report mainly focuses on increasing awareness and creating systems of accountability in the fight against human trafficking. 

      Although there are harsh criminal sanctions against human trafficking in Canada, it is a problem that has been historically difficult to address. 

      This is because human trafficking is often misunderstood. 

      Myths and stereotypes about the very nature of human trafficking help its perpetrators to remain anonymous and operate without detection. The report overtly recognizes this issue and seeks to help combat it. 

      One of the main reasons for such ample misconception around the issue of human trafficking is that it is often conflated with the sex trade. To its credit, this report overtly acknowledges that sex work and human trafficking are not the same and that they should not be confused with one another. 

      The report also dispels the popular myth, which assumes that sex work is the primary hotbed for human trafficking in Canada. It points out that human trafficking is not limited to the sex trade, and can take many forms, including forced labour and debt bondage. 

      Other seemingly benign commercial sectors, such as the hospitality industry, are identified as more common vectors for human trafficking than the sex trade. 

      Employers in this industry are often able to prey on vulnerable, migrant workers who are unaware of their employment rights upon their arrival into Canada. They are also more able to do so as they are not usually subject to the same degree of scrutiny from law-enforcement officials as those operating in more controversial industries, such as those related to sex work. 

      By making this important point, the report tends to destigmatize sex work and declassify it from the realm of human trafficking on the whole. 

      It makes this important distinction in spite of the fact that a number witnesses, who appeared before the committee during the creation of this report, characterized sex work as violence against women and girls in all circumstances. 

      And while the report did not take an obvious side in the ongoing debate around the morality of sex work, it did not paint any large and immoveable brush strokes against the industry as a whole, deciding instead to take a more nuanced and neutral approached to the issues at hand.

      It is disappointing, however, that the committee did not take this opportunity to better explore the issue of sex work in Canada. 

      In doing so, it could have created recommendations tailored to help increase the safety and security of all sex workers, including those who are subject to the horrors of human trafficking. In this way, it could have strengthened its approach to its objective, while taking an important, ideological stand. 

      After all, many Canadian sex workers continue to be stigmatized as the result of bad laws. 

      These laws—which criminalize the purchasers of sex—create systematic barriers that are not conducive to a safe invulnerable environment. They also foster a profound mistrust of police, which is contrary to ensuring that exploited and marginalized individuals get the help they need in order to avoid victimization and stay safe. 

      Ultimately, these laws are contrary to identifying and ending instances of human trafficking, no matter how remote the number of these instances may be. They also increase the propensity for violence against sex workers and make them more vulnerable than they should otherwise be.

      So while this report contains helpful recommendations in order to combat human trafficking on a whole and helps to erode some common myths around sex work in this country, it simply did not go far enough.

      This is particularly disappointing as the Liberal government has expressed its commitment to feminist initiatives and to advancing the status of women. 

      This report presented a unique opportunity for the Liberals to take a hard stance against the harmful laws passed by the previous Conservative government, and to propose socially radical recommendations aimed at improving the lives and working conditions of sex workers throughout our nation.   

      By erring on the side of caution, however, the committee missed the mark completely.