The city has launched an investigation into the conduct of some of its bylaw officers in relation to allegations from women working in the city’s holistic centres — also known as body rub parlors.
The women reported being forced to take off their clothes to show officers their undergarments and have photos taken of them without their consent.
The allegations were brought forward Tuesday at the Licensing and Standards committee meeting by holistic centre staff and advocacy groups as part of a review into how the city regulates and enforces issues regarding these businesses.
Coun. Kristyn Wong-Tam said she’s met with about 10 women working at the parlours who have brought forward allegations of sexual harassment and violence. She says many are from a Chinese background, speak little English and felt they are being racially targeted by the city.
“They felt that there was discrimination in the way that they are being treated. They felt that having an officer come in three to four times a week to physically inspect their business and being asked repeated questions of I.D. checks, they felt that was rather punitive,” Wong-Tam said. “It was very disruptive to their business and some of the more serious allegations would include bylaw officers asking the women, or holistic practitioners, to disrobe and show them their undergarments which I believe is completely inappropriate and it is a form of sexual violence.”
A recent petition launched by the Holistic Practitioners Alliance also alleges the women were forced to sing for the officer’s entertainment, told to stand as a form of punishment and barred from using the bathroom during an inspection.
Tracey Cook, executive director of Municipal Licensing and Standards (MLS), told CityNews in a statement Wednesday that the city has launched an investigation as a result of the complaints brought forward.
“The concerns raised through the deputations yesterday will be investigated,” Cook said in a statement. “We have met with and will continue to meet with some of the groups that spoke yesterday to get their feedback and hear their concerns. The City takes complaints of staff misconduct very seriously and have mechanisms in place for investigation once they are received. City staff are expected to conduct themselves professionally at all times.”
The city recently hired five new bylaw officers after the 2017 Auditor General’s report called for an increase in inspections on holistic centres. As of late 2016, there were 410 such licensed locations in Toronto. The City said as many as a quarter of those appeared to be offering unauthorized services such as erotic massages.
The Holistic Practitioners Alliance says in the past five years, MLS has increased the number of inspections conducted from 500 times in 2013 to more than 1,700 in 2016.
None of these allegations have been proven. The city will continue to enforce bylaws and inspect holistic centres while the allegations are being investigated.