The Lawyer’s Daily by Rudayna Bahubeshi and Anuradha Dugal 22 May 2019
For more than a decade the Canadian Women’s Foundation (CWF) has focused on prioritizing women’s safety in anti-trafficking work, ensuring those who have experienced trafficking receive services and supports that recognize their different realities.
We have paid close attention to the recommendations in the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights’ report, Moving Forward in the Fight Against Human Trafficking in Canada published in December 2018, and to the government’s response made public in early April. We have looked for indications that this report reflects the urgency of women’s safety and responds to the issues raised in our submission and to similar concerns from other stakeholders.
Support women where they are
As an organization that works on moving women and girls out of violence, out of poverty and into confidence and leadership, the CWF has worked closely with organizations delivering services to individuals with lived experience of trafficking.
Partners on the ground have emphasized the importance of centring people with lived experience as experts, and we are encouraged that this is reflected in the report. Many organizations and experts call on government and funders to take their lead from those with lived experience and from frontline organizations with deep expertise on serving those most vulnerable to trafficking, including (im)migrant women and refugees, Indigenous women, women with disabilities, and racialized women.
We are also glad to see the report recognize the ways in which sex work is often conflated with human trafficking. If programs to tackle trafficking are not precise and careful in how they describe these two very different realities, they may end up taking away women’s agency, constraining their choices and making them more vulnerable.
Avoid criminalization, surveillance of sex workers
The report also discusses the complicated nature of measuring the extent of trafficking. While understanding instances of trafficking is important, it is equally important to ensure government agencies, frontline organizations, researchers and the media do not overstate or sensationalize this crime.
At CWF, we have heard directly from sex workers about the ways in which assumptions that trafficking is widespread and can happen anywhere to anyone have led to increased surveillance and criminalization of sex workers and their peers.
Use human rights lens
We’ve heard repeatedly from community organizations that this work must be done through a human rights lens that recognizes women’s dignity and agency. This includes responding to the needs of those who experience trafficking in a way that upholds their rights to safety, work, housing and education, as per the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Community organizations report that women in the Temporary Foreign Worker Program who are exploited often do not feel safe reporting to the government. Their employment and status in these programs are deeply precarious, and they may fear their rights will not be prioritized. Many of these women have seen their peers lose employment and be deported as a result of the stringent rules set out by their temporary permits.
Although the report states workers can find new employers in the same field if they have “credible allegations of human trafficking,” it is understandable that temporary workers may be reluctant to come forward fearing loss of their livelihood and deportation.
Due to risks of exploitation, organizations with expertise in the area, such as immigration law firm Embarkation and FCJ Refugee Centre, called for the government to issue open work permits that are sector specific rather than employer specific. The committee, however, concluded this change should not be made, as it would “compromise the program’s rationale.” In this way, we see the committee prioritizing the program’s economic utility over a change that experts believe will increase the safety of workers.
Using a human rights lens is critical to populations beyond migrant workers. This lens would also help ensure there is a connected understanding of colonization and the trafficking experienced by Indigenous women. Indigenous women’s increased vulnerability to trafficking is inextricable from the centuries of colonization marked by racism, economic oppression and land dispossession that have led to present circumstances. Redressing these harms and ensuring the rights of all Indigenous women would start to get at root causes.
While the report represents many stakeholders’ concerns over the lack of a shared definition of trafficking, Minister Ralph Goodale’s response to the report seems to sidestep the issue and imply the definition available through the Criminal Code is sufficient. Given that community organizations, women with lived experience, governments, Indigenous communities and others have highlighted that trafficking means different things to the groups they work with, investing in devising a shared definition is important.
The way forward
Ultimately, safety must be the priority in decision making. And this means prioritizing all women’s safety, especially vulnerable populations and those working in circumstances with heightened surveillance, such as sex workers and migrant workers. At the same time, decision making must take the lead from those with lived experience of trafficking and the community organizations they trust. And finally, this work must be done through a human rights lens, one that doesn’t make assumptions about women’s experiences or require them to present themselves as victims.
Rudayna Bahubeshi is a manager of community initiatives at the Canadian Women’s Foundation. She focuses on grantmaking and supporting grantees, including those funded through the organization’s anti-trafficking stream. Anuradha Dugal is director of community initiatives at the Canadian Women’s Foundation where she focuses on policy issues to bring about systemic change for women and girls in Canada, including trafficking.