Caught in the Carceral Web: Anti-Trafficking Laws and Policies and their Impact on Migrant Sex Workers

Presentation of an evidence-based research report which maps the tangled web of Canadian anti-trafficking laws and policies, and investigates their impact on migrant sex workers.

In Canada, a complex and multiscalar web of laws has been constructed to target sex trafficking, based upon two deeply rooted assumptions: the first, that immigrant women are especially vulnerable to trafficking for sexual exploitation, and the second, that the commercial sex sector is inseparable from trafficking. The express goals of this carceral and repressive approach to human trafficking are to protect immigrant women who are vulnerable to sex trafficking by prohibiting them from working in any aspect of the sex industry and to reduce demand by making it a crime to purchase, materially benefit from, procure, or advertise sexual services.

Yet, a closer review reveals the harms of this carceral approach. An evaluation of the combined impact of federal immigration and criminal laws, provincial anti-human trafficking laws, and municipal laws ostensibly targeting human trafficking and a review of the academic and grey literature on the impact of these laws on migrant sex workers in Canada uncover no evidence that they protect immigrant women from trafficking or migrant sex workers from exploitation.

A qualitative study conducted between June 2020 and March 2021 of migrant sex workers and their advocates regarding the operation of anti-trafficking laws and policies accords with these findings. Migrant sex workers described how these laws and policies have led to extraordinary surveillance and unjustified criminal charges, particularly within migrant sex work communities, as well as against third parties in the absence of evidence of exploitation. The immigration regulations prohibiting migrants without permanent residence from working in the sex industry is particularly pernicious because it is unaccountable, since immigration enforcement matters are adjudicated as administrative matters and lack due process protections, despite the severe impact of the threat of detention and deportation.


Judy Fudge
LIUNA Enrico Henry Mancinelli Professor of Global Labour Issues, School of Labour Studies, McMaster University
Sandra Ka Hon Chu
co-Executive Director, HIV Legal Network
Vincent Wong
lawyer and PhD Candidate, Osgoode Hall Law School
Elene Lam
Executive Director, Butterfly & PhD Candidate, School of Social Work, McMaster University


Kamala Kempadoo
Professor, Department of Social Science, York University