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New West takes action to secure safety of sex workers

Involvement of lived experience key to New Westminster’s initiative for sex worker safety
City council has approved guidelines aimed at promoting the safety of sex workers.

New Westminster is working with folks with lived experience to take action to improve the safety of sex workers.

At Monday’s meeting, council unanimously supported endorsement of guidelines to promote sex worker safety. Council also approved $5,000 from the human resources department’s 2024 budget for staff training to promote sex worker safety and directed staff to work with the Living in Community and PACE organizations to explore possible next steps related to sex worker safety in New Westminster.

“This is so much good work, and this has been a long path to get here,” said Coun. Nadine Nakagawa. “This didn't just arrive, and I know that this is built on policy work that the city's been doing. … I want to do a little happy dance about it because I think it's deeply, deeply meaningful.”

  • In June 2021, council directed staff to coordinate a workshop for council and senior staff on sex worker safety and to report back to council with related safety policies.
  • In March 2022, council endorsed a proposed work plan to develop a framework for sex worker safety in New Westminster, which included contacting a peer-driven organization to deliver training to council and senior staff on sex worker safety, conducting case study research; establishing a sex worker safety framework working group to assist with the development of a framework; and consulting internally with city departments.

Nakagawa said it was helpful that staff’s report included an analysis of what other municipalities are doing in regards to this issue, as well as feedback from the working group. She said it was “outstanding” that 50 per cent of the working group was comprised by people with lived or living experience.

Mayor Patrick Johnstone agreed.

“It's incredible that you've managed to put together a working group that includes so many people with living experience,” he said. “It'll change the way we approach the work, and I think it's a model for how we address issues like this, any issues that relate to people who are marginalized in our community.”

John Stark, the city’s manager of community planning, said staff are planning to meet with Living in Community and PACE to explore possible next steps. He said that could include staff training and community education.

“Really trying to get a sense as to what they would see as the next steps before bringing any next steps forward,” he said. “We'd bring that back to council with regards to a possible work program and a potential budget. So at this time, not to sound vague, but we really want to have a discussion with the working group.”

Claudia Freire, a social planner with the city, explained the report is “open ended” about next steps to be taken because the city is open to possibilities, based on the various perspectives presented by the working group.

“It isn't an easy issue. It is complex, there's many different perspectives, even within the lived experience community. It's not a homogenous group,” she said. “So part of that was to give more time and space to have meaningful conversation with that group, if council directs us to move forward and continue that work.”

Nakagawa, who raised the issue of sex worker safety at council, said she is really appreciative of the work that’s being done.

“I just really, really want to highlight what good work this is,” she said Monday night. “This is a topic that cities don't necessarily feel comfortable talking about, and I think a lot of members of the community don't want to talk about or don't want to think about necessarily. But in living memory, in recent memory, there has been three women who have been murdered in our community and you know, some of the most marginalized people. And they deserve safety in their work as well.”

According to a staff report, sex work is the exchange of sexual services for money or other goods; it includes escorting, street-based sex work, exotic dancing, pornography, and more.

Although many aspects of, and issues related to, sex work fall under senior government jurisdiction, the report said local governments have a responsibility to protect the health and safety of their community members. It stated that municipal policies can uphold sex worker’s rights to health, safety and dignity, including: policies promoting a respectful, non-discriminatory and consistent approach among municipal staff who interact with anyone in the sex industry through the course of their duties; policies for staff training and education; policies related to business licensing and enforcement; and advocacy to the federal government to decriminalize sex work.

The sex worker safety framework working group was established to help the City of New Westminster with the development of a sex worker safety framework intended to promote the health and safety of community members who are engaged in sex work in New Westminster. The 12-member group, which met four times between February and June 2023 and developed the guidelines, included six individuals with lived or living experience in sex work

“The purpose of the guidelines is to make it safer for sex workers who are active in New Westminster by promoting their health and rights, and ensuring that City of New Westminster staff treat sex workers with dignity, fairness and respect,” said the staff report. “They are intended to inform city staff interactions with sex workers and individuals involved in sex work occupations in New Westminster.”

The report noted the guidelines are also intended to: promote a non-discriminatory and consistent approach among city staff; foster community understanding of sex work as an occupation; and, inform the community-at-large about the objectives contained in the guidelines.