On Monday, June 21, 2021, the Town of Newmarket will ratify amendments to its body rub parlour bylaw, with the goal of shutting down massage businesses. The Town claims it is targeting illegal activities and businesses where sex work may be conducted. Racial justice, labour rights, human rights, and sex workers’ rights advocates have been outspoken in their opposition the new licensing regime, saying it would disproportionately harm the livelihood of Asian massage workers, regardless of whether they engage in sex work.
If passed, the amended bylaw would require workers in alternative massage businesses to have college-accredited training credentials and proof of eligibility to work in Canada in order to operate. The screening process would also involve interviews with owners and attendants, on-site inspections, and referrals to the York Regional Police. The Town Council has made clear that the goal of this updated bylaw is to “drive [sex work] out” of Newmarket.
Asian migrant massage workers often come to Canada with limited English skills, and already face significant barriers to employment. Many face language barriers to accessing college education, and are not able to afford college courses. A lack of college accreditation does not mean Asian massage workers are unskilled—many have learned their skills in Asia or through years of on-the-job training. Yet many of these workers will be excluded from working in Newmarket’s massage industry as a result of this amendment.
On June 16, 2021, advocates and community members made deputations in front of the Newmarket council, urging them to conduct further consultations with Asian massage workers and to minimize barriers to licensing. Among the deputants were Ivy, Mei, Lisa, and Jessica—four Chinese massage workers residing in Newmarket and Toronto. They spoke first-hand about how the updated bylaw would impact Asian massage workers. They have agreed to have their deputations and stories reproduced in Spring Magazine to reach a wider audience.
The following deputations were made by Ivy, Mei, Lisa, and Jessica during the special meeting of the Town Council of Newmarket on June 16, 2021.
Ivy: “We do not rely on the government, we rely on ourselves.“
Ivy explains how the new bylaw would empower the government and law enforcement to continue targeting Asian massage workers for harassment, violence, and disruption of their livelihoods.
My name is Ivy and I am 40 years old. I am a self-employed massage parlour worker in Newmarket. I have been in Canada for fourteen years. In the beginning, I only stayed at home to take care of the children and household. I was depressed because some family members looked down on me and said that I would not do anything. I thought of working for a long time, I realized that I want to integrate into society. I want to make some money so I am determined to work in the massage industry.
I have worked in the massage parlour industry for four years. I studied in a beauty salon for a year and half. I only helped with cleaning and did not have the opportunity to learn more massage techniques. After that, I went to the second massage parlour for one year. The massage parlour provides training in beauty and massage services. I had trained eight to nine hours a day, practiced with colleagues without any breaks. I have learned the techniques of back, head, and neck massages, oil pushing, sand scraping and hot stones respectively for three months. It is so strict and I did not continue after a few months. My friend in the beauty salon introduced me to working in massage parlour. I refused at first because of the image of it so I worked in the front desk of a massage parlour for three months. One time, it was so busy that the owner asked me to give it a try and then I gradually became a worker.
90% of my customers are construction workers and engineers. They are all word of mouth. After being introduced by friends, everyone said that my massage is good. The customers give tips. I am so happy and gradually gained self-confidence. I believed my techniques could make money. All of us who do massage work are doing it with sweat and tears. I have one customer who is a dentist. They shared with me that I am the one who can help them relax their neck pain. Although it is not a therapeutic massage, customers feel relieved after. There has never been a complaint over years, customers mostly appreciate it.
I used to work in beauty salons and restaurants where I was fined for using my phone. It was because my children had an urgent situation at school and my boss did not allow me to use my phone. I was so worried. On the other hand, I have more flexible time in the massage industry, which allows me to take care of my children.
I am very worried that the training requirements in this Newmarket bylaw would cause me to lose income for a long time. I cannot do English in writing and reading. It is unfair to ask me to retake the course to obtain a “professional qualification” because I have years of experience. Unfortunately, the beauty salon cannot provide relevant certificates to prove my experience. I have a family and I need to take care of my children all the time because they are still very young. I am also afraid that if we cannot get a license, the government will target Asians for different reasons and prevent us from continuing to work. I have worked very hard, very hard to get to this point in my life. Why do you say that the massage parlour is not good? I am an adult, I have my rights, and I am not a victim of trafficking. I hope that the city councillors will listen to our opinions. We make a living with our hands, we should not be discriminated against, we do not rely on the government, we rely on ourselves.
Ivy was also interviewed by Newmarketoday.ca to express her concerns.
Mei: “This is a double discrimination: racial discrimination and industry discrimination.”
Underscoring the importance of massage in Chinese culture and the many years of hands-on job experience that many Asian massage workers have acquired, Mei’s deputation illuminates how Newmarket’s proposed bylaw is both anti-Asian and anti-worker.
My name is Mei and I am 52 years old. I came to Canada seven years ago. At first, I liked my life in Canada very much. The environment is good, and the air here is fresh. People seemed to be equal and respect each other. But gradually, I discovered the hardships of living here.
I used to work in a bank when I was in China. When I first came to Canada, I didn’t know anyone and couldn’t find a job. My English was not good. I found a job in a fruit factory through people I knew. It was an assembly line. The job was very tiring, and the salary was very low. We had to stand for eight to ten hours a day, so my legs became swollen and unable to bend. My body did not allow me to continue with this job, so I left after only a few days.
Then I went to work at a Chinese restaurant. I thought it was easier because I could communicate in Chinese, but I didn’t have the skills to work there, and I finally quit again. I am getting older and it is slow for me to learn a new language, but I still want to support myself through my own hands.
Massage is a part of Chinese culture. I used to go to massage frequently in China. I think working in the massage industry is a professional job and deserves respect. I have been exposed to massage for more than ten years. I learned from my friends and gave massages to my relatives and friends.
This is how I entered the massage industry in Canada. One day, I went to a massage parlour and I learned about this job opportunity through chatting with them. I decided to give it a try. Massage work is relatively more relaxed, the working hours are more flexible, the environment is good, colleagues are also friendly, and I can rest when there is no customer. It is very suitable for my age and my physical condition.
Although this job is very tiring, and we also suffer from occupational injuries, but I think it is very rewarding to use my technique to help others relax their body and relieve pain.
I have been working in Canada for six years now, and my clients all thank me for my service. When they think that I gave them a good massage, they will give me a hug and a tip. My customers are all my friends, and everyone says I’m good. I am especially proud when I solve their problems.
There are also downsides to this job. Law enforcement officers have a lot of discrimination against us. When they came to inspect, they often did not listen to our explanations because our English was not fluent. I tried to get people with fluent English to help us communicate over the phone, but they couldn’t wait and directly issued a ticket. We don’t know how to appeal. But I don’t speak English, so this is the best choice for me at the moment.
After hearing about Newmarket’s new regulations, I was very angry. I think this is a double discrimination: racial discrimination and industry discrimination. We are old and have language barriers, how can we meet the new training requirements? I will have no income during class time and cannot live or pay rent.
I think massage focuses on technique, not written exams or books. Where can we work if the massage parlour is closed? If I don’t get the license, I will lose my job, and I don’t know how to survive. I feel very lost. What is even more absurd is the campaign against human trafficking. This is my job and my personal choice.
Despite the hard work, this job is still the most suitable for me. I think we should unite and let the government hear our voices.
Lisa: “The regulations are to make it difficult for people like us.”
Like many, Lisa worked in many different industries before finding massage work, which suits her abilities well. Though her lack of fluency in English has never been a problem at her job (except when law enforcement arrives to harass workers), the new bylaw requirements target non-English speakers by making them get credentials that are far easier for English speakers to obtain.
My name is Lisa. I came to Canada in 2015 and I am 61 years old. I like Canada’s nature, blue sky, and the fresh air.
When I first came to Canada, I worked as a dishwasher, a factory worker, and a wedding dress factory worker. These jobs were very tiring, the salary was low, and the working hours were long. I washed the dishes for ten hours a day without much time to rest. My body couldn’t take it.
Later, others introduced me to work at the fruit factory. It was easier than washing dishes, but the fruit factory was very cold, the wages were even lower. The agents would also charge transportation fees, so the money I actually got was very little. After working for more than a year, I fell ill and needed an operation, so I left.
I still need money for rent and food. After taking a break after the operation, I went out to look for a job near my place and saw a few massage parlours with Chinese recruitment notices, so I decided to give it a try.
The temperature inside the massage parlour is very comfortable, not as cold as the fruit factory. I only need to work when there are customers. I have flexible hours and more rest time. After trying, I felt that it was suitable for me, so I have been doing it till now, and it has already been four years.
We often face inspections by law enforcement when we work in massage parlours. The boss told us not to irritate them and not to cause trouble for ourselves. If they cannot find any violation among our workers, they will pick on the shop.
In many cases, a ticket was issued for some inexplicable reason, such as not covering the drain in the bathroom. Our English is not fluent, and we didn’t understand the government’s procedures, and we didn’t know anything about the discriminatory policies.
Many people did not understand us at first and discriminated against us. Later, through communication and public education, they understood our story and understood that this job is what we choose to do, to support our family and ourselves, and it is much better than other jobs.
I rely on myself and make money with my hands. I can pay for the rent. The customers can relax through my service. I remember a parent bringing their child to the store to experience a massage. At the end, we even took a group photo. Everyone was very happy. I think this job is respected. Now I am proud of my job.
But it is impossible for me to go back to school and get a certificate. I have to pay tuition and study. I am 61 years old. I only know how to work. Even if I have time and money to attend classes, I can’t speak English and I will never get a certificate. If I can’t work, I can’t pay for the rent or food.
I find Newmarket’s new regulations very ridiculous. The regulations on training are to make it difficult for people like us. If the massage parlour is forced to close, we cannot survive.
Police are causing us a lot of trouble. They will always ask us if we were trafficked, if there were any trafficker, how much money we give to the trafficker, etc., but we only go to work normally and we are not forced.
Here, I don’t need fluent English to serve the customers well. With the experience, I can tell where my customer hurts just by touch. I already have a lot of experience and don’t need the English exam and certificate. This is discrimination, bullying, prejudice against the massage industry, and ignorance. It is to oppress us.
I understand that it is not something that can be done in a day or two to fight against the government and society’s discrimination against our industry. But we must still unite and fight for our own interests.
Jessica: “My skills, techniques, and experiences would be wasted.”
Jessica has a certificate from studying massage in China and applies those lessons when she does massage work in Canada. Despite these qualifications, she would be out of work under the new bylaw. She calls for the government to “stop creating more barriers” for Asian massage workers.
I am a massage parlour worker in Toronto and I have been in Canada for ten years. I was not well adapted to a new environment at that time. Since I was not young when I arrived, I had to learn a new language and start a new life. It takes me some time to adjust to a new environment.
After arriving in Canada, I have worked in different industries. The first job in Canada was a farm. I lived in Chinatown and the farm was so far away. Hence, I had to take a shuttle bus to commute at four o’clock every morning. It would take more than two hours for a one-way trip. When we arrived at the farm, it was just dawn and we already needed to work. We squatted to work for the whole day and our lunch always got cold. I worked so hard, ten hours a day, but I could only make 65 dollars.
Later, I switched to become a waitress. Since I did not have skills, I had to stand in the back kitchen and wash dishes. I worked so hard, but the boss thought that I was way too slow, and did not meet their expectations. I thereby changed to a fruit factory and sausage factory. Since it was a food processing company, my duty was to work in the freezer and pack food. My hands were so cold that I could not feel them, as well I got some nose problems due to the cold working condition. More importantly, I did not make enough money.
Because of those negative working experiences, a friend later introduced me to a massage parlour store. I have learned massage in China and got a certificate from there. I could apply my techniques to massage work here in Canada. I finally found a job that is best suited for me. I am happy working because I can provide food and shelter myself. I am very proud of myself that I contribute to Canadian society.
Nevertheless, working in the massage parlour industry is not always positive. I met one customer who left without paying for the services. Months later, he ran away again and knew our memory would be blurred. The front desk worker and I were afraid to chase him because he is tall and muscular. What if he hit us, what should we do?
I heard about the new regulation on massage parlours in Newmarket. Although I do not live there, I am very angry and upset. If this situation applies to me, I would be unemployed if they did not give me a license. My skills, techniques, and experiences would be wasted. How can I support myself? I demand all city governing staff treat us, massage parlour workers, equally. I demand that the government stops creating more barriers for us. I hope the government can support us, allowing us to use our hands to spread love. This is a voice from massage parlour workers. Thank you, everyone.
Starus Chan: “Your city would not give them a chance.”
In this deputation, community organizer Starus Chan highlights how processes under the bylaw, including the exemption process, are structured in a way that specifically discriminates against Asian massage workers.
My name is Starus Chan and I am a community organizer, studying at McMaster University. When I read about the Newmarket bylaw amendment, [I thought] the exemptions process is not accessible for Asian massage parlours workers. One of the reasons is the process is so long. Some workers have years of experience and have worked in different countries. However, your city would not give them a chance. The interview process is so intimidating that their English level may not be satisfactory. As well, they may have a hard time submitting the required list of documents.
How to provide so many documents when they just want to make a living like everyone else? For college training qualification, it would be acceptable. How about Thai massage? I don’t know if they can get exemptions. The community members that I have been working with, they are so worried, even if they are in different cities, are they the next one losing their job? Our demand is that the Town of Newmarket should allow massage parlours without training from accredited institutions or formal training to work.
Please read, sign, and share the call to action from Butterfly: “Stop racist attacks from harmful anti-trafficking organizations against Asian massage parlour and sex workers.”
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