While many believe human trafficking to supply labour for sweatshops or girls for prostitution is found only in the Third World, it’s not something that is unheard of in Canada.

Commodification of human beings

  • May 25, 2011

TORONTO - Though she escaped more than a year ago, it’s still difficult for Irais Martinez to hold back tears when she recalls how she was trafficked into a sweatshop in Brampton, Ont.

It’s hard for the 27-year-old psychology graduate from Mexico to think of herself as a victim.

“I feel like I hurt myself without my permission,” she told The Catholic Register.

She hasn’t explained to her parents what happened to her since she came to Canada.

“It’s not easy to tell them, ‘Oh, I was involved in human trafficking.’ ”

Her case to stay in Canada is before the Immigration and Refugee Board, and she knows she faces extra scrutiny because she is Mexican. The IRB has rejected the vast majority of Mexican cases in recent years. The situation makes Martinez “really, really angry.”

“I see people with fake issues,” she said. “I have proof.”

Human beings as commodities are part of our economy — from girls sold for sex to captive, illegal construction workers. Martinez was lured to Canada with the promise of a job caring for a Canadian family’s elderly mother. When she arrived in Toronto she was taken to a house in the suburbs where her Canadian employer kept her isolated and pressured her for sex.

After five days resisting the Canadian, Martinez was moved to a house with five other Mexicans where she faced demands for rent. The Canadian would still show up asking for sex. Though not forced to, the only solution to the rent problem was a job packing cookies into boxes. Not able to speak English, she couldn’t look for a job or place to live on her own.

Details of how Martinez escaped are foggy, typical of trafficking stories, according to Loly Fico, director of Toronto’s FCJ Hamilton House. Police were involved and there is a restraining order against the Canadian man, though no human trafficking chargeds have been laid against him.

Ann Devlin of the Kamloops Catholic Women’s League wants our federal government do something about this scourge. While Canada passed a human trafficking law in 2005 and ratified the United Nations optional protocol on human trafficking, Devlin complains we still lack a co-ordinated national response that goes beyond law enforcement.

“The Stockholm Declaration, we’ve signed onto it. What have we done? We haven’t done anything. We’ve ratified the UN optional protocol. And what have we done? We haven’t done anything.”

District Inspector Uday Jaswal of the Ottawa Police Service is the first to say police work alone won’t eradicate human trafficking. The police need social agencies to feed them information and provide permanent, stable solutions to victims.

“The police can’t do it alone from the point of view of supporting victims, making sure that we’re sensitive to their needs as we’re also looking possibly to prosecute offenders,” he said.

“We really need to work closely with service providers.”

Jaswal would like to see a concerted, rational approach to prevention. When it comes to sexual exploitation and enslavement, that’s a tough nut to crack given the constant demand for sex in the marketplace, he said.

“One cannot make men good through an act of Parliament. There are some fundamental societal changes we need to look at,” he told The Catholic Register. “I don’t think the law in itself is going to end the demand side. There’s a lot of other things that need to take place.”

A coalition of religious sisters at the United Nations believes stopping the demand for sex-for-sale is key. Under the banner “Stop the Demand,” UNANIMA, a non-governmental organization that represents more than 17,000 sisters who advocate for women and children in poverty, wants criminal charges for men who buy sex.

“If you criminalize the one who is buying sex, that’s the person who really has a choice in this. It’s not the women who have a choice,” said UNANIMA coalition co-ordinator Sr. Catherine Fergusson of the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary.

It’s a model that’s been tried in Nordic countries, with success, said Fergusson.

The alternative legal strategy, legalizing prostitution and treating it as a legitimate, regulated form of employment, simply doesn’t work, she said.

“It’s just a gift to the traffickers, really,” said Fergusson. “It makes it so much harder to tell what’s legal and what’s not legal.”

Theoretically, men in Canada can go to jail for buying sex. Communication for the purpose of prostitution, section 213 of Canada’s Criminal Code, applies to men who inquire in a public place about the availability and price of sex.

While it’s the lurid, dirty world of the sex trade that gets all the attention, the largest human trafficking case since Canada passed its 2005 Human Trafficking law involves 19 construction workers from Hungary who were working in Hamilton.

“I’m quite confident we have both forms of human trafficking (sexual exploitation and forced labour) here in Ottawa,” said Jaswal.

An absence of solid information about human trafficking is a challenge.

“We really don’t have a good handle on the scope of the problem,” Jaswal said.

In Toronto, FCJ Hamilton House, a refugee shelter run by the Faithful Companions of Jesus, is trying to fill the knowledge gaps by educating social workers and community agencies through seminars. Over 15 years FCJ Hamilton House has learned there are warning signs, little clues that will reveal when a person has been trafficked.

“The government has more to do in the protection of victims,” said FCJ Hamilton House director Loly Rico. “Protection for victims is very limited. We need to give people choice. When you are a victim of trafficking the first thing you lose is your choice.”

As Martinez awaits a pre-removal risk assessment, she describes herself as stuck in a kind of limbo. If she goes back to Mexico she will face the people who offered her the job in Canada, people she now fears. In the meantime she volunteers at FCJ Hamilton House, counselling Hispanic women who have survived similar situations.

“I try to recover by doing something to help others. This is part of my own recovery, my own healing,” she said.

Part two of our human trafficking special feature, "Prevention of trafficking begins with education" was published on Sunday May 29.

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