Industrial Workers of the World Edmonton Branch Host ESPU for May Day 2009.
Report: Streetbased workers are under attack as seen in these signs posted in their work area. And massage parlor workers and escorts have to have permits and licenses.
Sorry about the grammatical and spelling errors. I just wanted to write about what I found out about what’s going on in this particular area around the social service providers.
I met with two different establishments that provide front line services to streetbased workers. Kindred House, a daytime drop in center and Crossroads, transitional housing for streetbased and drug addicted workers. Both had leather couches as did maggie’s in Toronto. Both groups had printed materials, some in glossy colors. Not that it means anything besides the NGO’s are funded better than some labor unions’ whose dues paying members need a raise. 😉
Anyway, I was struck by the information streetbased workers seem to be providing to the front line social/outreach workers about the violence they had sustained on their job. Two of the frontline outreach workers belonged to unions. One outreach worker recounted how he had witnessed an undercover cop talking to one worker and then arrest both her and the worker standing beside her for solicitation. He believed this to be an act of harassment by the police. I challenged them about what role they were having in getting the police to receive reports of violence and what justice had been achieved on behalf of these worker’s who were injured on their job. I myself have been hearing about the bodies of women turning up in Edmonton since I met some Edmonton union women at one of the women’s labor school held on the west coast a few years back.
It seems that some of the diversion program workers showed up at the talk I gave the night before but they didn’t come and speak to me afterward. The next day I visited at Crossroads, the residential transitional house. The facility manager/social worker was able to see that there would be a conflict of interests of NGO’s who had an economic interest in continuing to arrest people for prostitution, but she quickly moved to talk about stopping arresting the workers but arresting the customers. The manager of this facility sits on a 15 organizational task force of sorts regarding prostitution as there’s a big push by the Not In My Neighborhood people to force the street workers out and that’s reduced the streetbased population significantly which seems to have put more pressure on the need for services for those workers where are still there. One social worker had knowledge about the guy/guy work scene. It seems former prostitutes are being used or are in some position to claim to be the voice of the worker on that task force and deemed status of ‘peer’ in some sort of 8 week program or course. I pointed out that they are not peers of actual workers, they are former workers and why weren’t there actual workers on this task force?
The manager of that facility was pretty in my face about ‘what would happen if men where not allowed to have sex?’ I asked her, ‘what do you want to have happen with that? What would it mean to you if men weren’t allowed to have sex?’. She thought that stopping men from having sex would mean ‘that they would find that they could live with out it’. I used the food and eating analogy on her: if you were only allowed to cook at home for your partner and never eat out or cook for other people and get paid as chief. I told her I would never put myself in apposition to violate another’s free choice as that would constitute violating another’s’ human rights and I wouldn’t want to take that on. (The bad karma alone…). I talked about that position being in judgment of others and that value system was theirs not everyone else’s.
The young social workers were very curious about my personal story and how I worked so I did some explaining about that as they had never met a 20 year veteran of the sex industry who had all of her teeth in her head, let along speak coherently apparently. I spoke about the difference between drug addicts using the sex industry and prostitutes who used drugs. I also spoke about the difference between violent perpetrators who pretended to be clients of prostitutes in order to gain access to us and actual clients as the facility manager of Crossroads grilled me about ‘security’. And ‘what security measures was I going to implement as a union when decriminalization or legalization happened?’ (Like I have that kind of power over other workers or over my own workplaces under the current occupation of our industry by the prison industrial complex???). So we discussed how clients are screened and how Canada collects information on prostitutes and their DNA as a form of ‘harm reduction’. I asked, ‘well how does that reduce harm after the person is dead?’
The social workers seemed to be very concerned with customers who used drugs to gain access to women which perpetuated the women’s drug use. I pointed out that drug possession was illegal and drug sales were illegal and the prostitutes are being arrested and arresting people doesn’t help. They agreed with that. I pointed out that prostitutes could have self esteem but that criminalization was getting in the way of that. And what were they doing to empower their clients’ self esteem if they weren’t even facilitating reports of violence of them? I had to explain the logistics of criminalization of our clients and why that didn’t work. I explained that I couldn’t work in their massage parlors there because I wasn’t likely going to be issued a license by the time I left because I wasn’t a Canadian citizen. I talked about the bawdy house laws, the communication with the intent and the solicitation laws. These situations left me with limited options of the streets and craigslist.
I spoke about them coalition building with the other social/outreach workers as there was talk about the constant funding fluctuations. They confirmed that they were under staffed and lacked pensions and benefits. I suggested that they work on their own situations as a role model for the women they were trying to help by organizing for their own situations. The manager of the Crossroads said, she did the work for the reward of the job and not for the money and scoffed a the idea of putting a value to women’s work. (it reminded me of some customers who don’t want to pay my rate by implying I ought to be doing it for the love of it). It told them they had an obligation and I had an obligation to do what we can to bring up our own situations in order to better those less fortunate like the women they said they cared so much about. The manager of crossroads did say she felt valued by her employer. I believe the umbrella funder is a faithbased NGO. I told her that her daddy wasn’t my daddy.
She also had the attitude that ‘these women would be better off working in a shop’ and said as much. I had to point out that the system of violence criminalization brings to all prostitutes also makes non sex workers at risk for the same violence by the same people. If they didn’t address their own situation of funding and violence at least on behalf of the population they serve, how could the expect to have any credibility in encouraging anyone to take advantage of all the resources in those glossy colored pamphlets they were handing out?
We talked about prostitution as an act of compassion for those who could not get affection or sexual satisfaction any other way. I talked about the pressure on men financially, emotionally, physically and that for some this was some seriously high expectations. The young social worker kept asking me questions about my situation and I talked about being older and seeing older people and the manager of the facility dismissed my agency by saying my customers where just fetishizing me,(because I was older???) I corrected her by saying I had the right to refuse and I had preferences. Her insult of me wasn’t lost on her 2 social worker subordinates.
The crossroads manager challenged me when I used the word prostitute to describe myself. I stated that in union organizing I used words that the worker uses to describe themselves and that it wasn’t my place to rename them and that it wasn’t her place to decide what to call me. Using other’s language is an act of respect.
She was pretty quiet the last half hour I was with them.
So basically it was an organizing opportunity for the NGO sector workers who are providing social services to streetbased drug addicted prostitutes and not too much time with the actual sex industry workers, but that’s how it is in labor organizing. We don’t discriminate who we organize. We just organize or (agitate) who’s in front of us.
The host committee members were fabulous and it’s comforting to know that I or any other organized ho will always have community there with them.