Are Sex Trade Workers Entitled to a Safe Workplace?


One the basic tenets of OHS laws is that all workers are entitled to a safe workplace. But what if the job a worker does is illegal? What obligation, if any, does the government have to ensure the health and safety of workers engaged in dangerous but illegal activities? That’s the question the Ontario Court of Appeal will be faced with when it hears a case involving the right of workers in the sex trade.

Court to Hear Prostitution Case in June

According to the Vancouver Sun, Ontario’s highest court has set aside four days in June to hear an appeal that effectively deals with legalizing prostitution. The appeal stems from a controversial decision last year by Ontario Superior Court Justice Susan Himel in which she struck down three prostitution laws prohibiting operating or working in a brothel, communicating for the purpose of prostitution and living off the avails of prostitution. Himel concluded that these provisions endangered prostitutes by forcing them to ply their trade underground.

The precedent-setting decision would essentially make prostitution legal in Ontario and possibly pave the way for the move to be adopted by other jurisdictions across Canada.

Alan Young, a Toronto lawyer who represents one of three sex-trade workers who originally brought the challenge to the courts, said “Is this case about protecting a population the government is not expected to protect or a case about the government placing obstacles in the way of Canadians trying to get safety measures?”

The federal government’s 117-page legal brief on the appeal argues that prostitutes should have no expectation of safety when they choose to enter an illegal trade, one that’s rife with crime, drugs and violence. It’s wrong to assume that “Parliament is obliged to minimize hindrances and maximize safety for those that do so contrary to the law.”

Sex-trade workers counter that they’ll be able to have more safety measures in their work if they’re able to operate legally, to file taxes and to create unions.

Groups, including the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, Maggies: Toronto Sex Workers Action Project and Prostitutes of Ottawa/Gatineau Work Education and Resists (POWER) have applied for intervener status in this case.

Spain Requires Prostitutes to Wear Safety Vests

Canada isn’t the only country grappling with whether and how to ensure the safety of prostitutes. According to the Telegraph, prostitutes looking for customers on a rural highway outside a small town in northern Spain have been told to wear fluorescent yellow bibs or pay fines of 40 Euros under road traffic laws. The vests are intended to make them more visible to drivers and thus reduce accidents.


Prostitutes wearing high visibility vests in Els Alamus Photo: REX

Police claim the sex workers on the LL-11 road aren’t being specifically targeted because of what they do but because they posed a danger to drivers as well as to themselves.