I would like you to consider how you might respond in the following scenario: Canadians discover that in a remote region of the country a town exists in which all the townspeople (thousands of them) are employed in an industry that has been exploiting its workers for decades and has failed to provide any of the protections guaranteed by Canada’s labour laws.
Employment in this industry is so dangerous that workers are sent to hospital on average once a month for injuries and the production process itself exposes them to disease that not only afflicts the workers, but spreads to others in the town. The on-the-job mortality rate is almost double the mortality rate of fisherman, which before this town was discovered was believed to be the most dangerous profession.
Some of the workers are in the town by choice; they have managed to negotiate relatively safe working conditions and a reasonable income. Others are there less by choice than by necessity; poverty has made it impossible for them to relocate to another area of the county. Others made no choice to be there at all; they are slaves who have been forcibly brought into the town from other parts of the country and around the world. Some of these slaves are children.
The Canadian government is urged to respond to the plight of these workers and, as a result, you are asked to choose which of the following two propositions is most consistent with Canadian values.
The first proposition is to place a ban on the consumption of the good that the industry produces in the belief that the industry will eventually become so unprofitable that workers will be forced to find employment in a sector that pays them a good wage and respects Canada’s labour laws.
The second proposition is to allow the industry to continue without government regulation after soliciting a promise from the industry that it will take reasonable steps to mitigate the harmful effects on workers. This proposition is based on the belief that while the work conditions in this industry would be intolerable to most Canadians, those workers who cannot relocate due to poverty would be harmed if their employment was no longer available.
Which proposition best reflects Canadian values? My guess is that most Canadians would respond by saying, ‘is this really all that can be done to protect these workers?’
In the debate over prostitution legislation two sides have emerged.
One side is urging the government to adopt the Nordic model. This model is based in the belief that a society that values the equality of women, and no woman should have to sell sex in order to earn an income. The structure of the law is identical to the first proposition above; eliminate the demand for the services sex workers provide and the workers themselves will relocate to other industries.
The other side is urging the government to adopt the New Zealand model. This model is based on the belief that if a woman chooses to sell sex, then society has no right to interfere in that process. The structure of this law is identical to the second proposition above in that it assumes the government has no role to play in the regulation of this industry – beyond limiting the purchasing of sexual services from anyone under the age of 18 and requiring that condoms be used – and that any attempt to do so will only infringe on the rights of workers.
What I would like to know is this: Why are we not considering a Canadian Model?
We are a nation that respects diversity, so why not have laws that acknowledge that sex workers have a diversity of experiences, and that while there are some who will benefit when laws restrict their market, there are others who only be harmed in that process.
For example, I would suggest that the New Zealand model is the better approach for the brothel sector. Criminalizing the purchase of sexual services in brothels forces those sex workers to operate in secret and prevents them from taking the steps needed for self-protection. Economic studies undertaken in Ecuador have found that in that country policing the relatively safe brothel sector only exposed those women to more risk and, in some circumstances, forced them out into the street sector.
On the other hand, the Nordic model might be the better approach for the street sector. That same study found that regulating the trade in sex that takes place on the street, while keeping leaving the brothel sector unregulated, encouraged buyers to only purchase services in brothels and encouraged street sex workers relocate to the much safer brothel sector.
Of course, there will be those buyers who will want to buy sex that is not available in the brothel sector, for example those who are looking for unprotected sex. And there will be those sellers who will have a hard time operating within a brothel, those for example with drug additions or mental illness. But surely this is the more exploitive segment of the sex trade that many Canadians would like to see eradicated.
The work conditions that I described in the story above do not exist in most industries today, in part, because the government regulates the activities of industries in which workers are put at risk, but also because machines have replaced much of the dangerous work that was previously done by workers. The current state of technology is such that machines will soon be capable of providing the same services currently provided by sex workers. You don’t have to be an economist to predict that while governments have failed to reduce participation in the sex trades, technology is very likely to succeed.
Marina Adshade is the author of The Love Market: What You Need To Know About How We Date, Mate and Marry. She teaches at the University of British Columbia’s Vancouver School of Economics.