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Lana Hall is a Toronto-based writer. She is working on a memoir about her time in the massage parlour business.

Once, when I worked in a dilapidated massage parlour bordering an expressway, a client tried to haggle me into giving him services I didn’t usually offer.

“Sorry, sweetheart, I don’t give extras,” I told him. “You know the rules.”

“I guess that would be a pretty big extra, wouldn’t it?” He smirked. “Probably a union grievance or something.”

I laughed. “Oh, we’ll have a union someday, just wait.”

It was a brief moment of banter, just me trying to keep the mood light while rebuffing his advances – a delicate balance my livelihood depended on. Today, we’re one step closer to sex-worker unions being less of a joke and more of a reality.

Last month, Canada’s oldest sex-worker organization became the first of its kind to unionize under the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE). Right now, the union only represents the staff members at Maggie’s, many of whom are current sex workers, but it’s still a watershed moment, one I hope will encourage other organizational efforts among sex-work communities across the country.

Most people in my life today know me as a professional writer and a business owner. But six years ago, I was none of those things. I was working in Toronto’s “exotic massage parlour” business, an industry shrouded in secrecy with no labour protection to speak of. For five years of my early and mid-20s, I worked in parlours throughout the city, in far-flung strip malls, in walkups overtop sketchy fast-food joints, in isolated industrial neighbourhoods. Places relegated both literally and figuratively to the margins of society.

I got into the business for the reasons many do: I was a broke university dropout and it seemed more interesting than folding T-shirts at the Gap. Even though I had some university education and had held other jobs, it was hard to qualify for anything that paid above minimum wage, and in a city like Toronto, nearly impossible to find safe, clean accommodation on a minimum-wage budget. I stayed in it for as long as I did partly because it was compelling to have an inside look at the human condition in a way I’d never experienced in any other line of work, and partly because the industry is very insular. Its secretive nature has a way of pulling you in and keeping you there.

Early on, however, I realized it also combined the worst parts of being self-employed with the worst parts of working for a company. It’s a job that can have erratic pay, unstable hours and is physically demanding. It’s also like customer service on steroids. Like many gig workers, licensed massage parlour attendants are considered self-employed, so they have no health or dental benefits and pay for most of their own supplies and transportation. But without regulation, massage parlour owners can still subject their workers to exploitive policies.

I don’t mean to suggest the sex trade is inherently corrupt, but this lack of regulation and accountability for owners and managers does tend to attract people who are apathetic to their workers at best and hungry for power at worst. When I was working, I encountered massage parlour owners that would force us to stay on shift until 2 a.m. They would garnish portions of our wages for “house fines,” implemented seemingly at random. Infractions could range from failing to separate sheets and towels in the laundry to not answering the front door fast enough. When I asked one owner if we could have a written record of “finable” offences, they refused. I walked through isolated parking lots after 15-hour shifts, exhausted. In some cases, I had to see clients I was uncomfortable with, clients that had been violent toward me in the past, because, even though we were considered self-employed, my co-workers and I had little autonomy and no leverage to protest.

The government – at nearly every level – has always been more interested in abolishing the sex trade altogether, rather than supporting sex workers’ rights and regulation, or even looking at the myriad of reasons people get into it and putting supports in place to mitigate that. If they’re so concerned about folks turning to sex work to survive in an increasingly hostile economy, they could prioritize affordable housing, universal basic income, more affordable and accessible child care, better bridging programs for those interested in going back to school or upgrading skills.

Instead, they’d rather do things such as try and overturn a long-established ruling that previously struck down Canada’s prostitution laws for being unconstitutional, which they did in 2014. But that doesn’t eliminate the industry, it just pushes it further underground, leaving us to the whims of brothel, strip club or massage parlour owners who are never held accountable for the way they treat workers. Both before and after my time in the massage parlour business, I’ve worked many jobs – retail, farm labour, housekeeping – that I held simply to make ends meet, but nobody suggested any of those jobs were undeserving of labour protection. A job shouldn’t have to be a dream job to be afforded legitimacy.

It’s been years since I’ve worked in the massage parlour industry, but I still care deeply about the folks who do, people fighting for the basic rights and protections that have eluded the community for so long. In the jobs I’ve held since, jobs society considers “legitimate,” I’ve been shocked by the resources available at my fingertips: human resources, health and dental benefits, manageable hours, written procedures. For years I didn’t have any of those. During COVID-19, I watched as many of my former co-workers lost their income when strip clubs and massage parlours were forced to close, didn’t qualify for wage subsidies and weren’t prioritized for vaccinations, despite arguably working on the front lines. I was frustrated on their behalf. It doesn’t surprise me that the first union organization for sex workers came out of Maggie’s. They’ve increasingly been providing practical, desperately needed supports for sex-industry professionals, such as tax workshops, access to legal support and peer support groups. The latter we just call “networking” in the corporate world, and there’s nothing radical about it.

They might not be mainstream (yet), but unions for sex workers are hardly new. A San-Francisco-based sex worker organized a union in 2007. In 2019, a strippers’ union launched in Britain. They exist in France and the Netherlands, too. I’m also encouraged by union organization work in other gig economies, such as food couriers. Last year, Foodsters United (now called Gig Workers United) pushed for food couriers to be unionized. Shortly afterward, Foodora closed its operations in Canada for good, although they’ve said their closing was unrelated to the push for unionization among their couriers.

In the back dressing room between sessions, my co-workers and I would joke all the time about starting some sort of organized labour protection. “If we had a union, nobody would be getting away with this!” we’d say. But it was just that: a joke. A pipe dream, really. I’m so happy we’re moving the dial on this issue, toward a time when massage parlour workers – some of the smartest, most competent businesswomen I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with – don’t have to be the punch line.

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