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Honouring Evelyn: Solidarity with Migrant and Sex Workers

Evelyn Bumatay Castillo was murdered on Saturday, October 11th at Quality Inn near Toronto International Airport. 43-years-old and a Filipino citizen, Evelyn came to Canada as a temporary foreign worker in January 2013. While caring for a family with three children, Evelyn was also working as an independent sex worker. Evelyn is survived by an 86-year-old mother in the Philippines and a 22-year-old son, who she had not seen in 10 years while working abroad to support her family.

While details are yet to be confirmed, it seems likely that Evelyn’s death was a targeted murder. She was sought out and brutalized by a man with a history of hurting sex workers. A travesty, similar to the horror of the targeted attacks on Indigenous women and sex workers throughout the last decade across this country.

As migrants, as those who have lived without immigration status and as people who have engaged in sex work, we in No One Is Illegal - Toronto commemorate Evelyn’s life. We place the responsibility of her death squarely on Canada’s immigration, detention and deportation regime; a culture of misogyny, and laws that criminalize sex work.

We remember that it is global economic and social conditions that force people to migrate, and to engage in temporary work abroad, which in itself is abusive. We know that its provincial and federal laws that deny migrants rights and protections, making our lives precarious. We insist that sex work is real work, made dangerous by the laws that criminalize sex workers, and call for decriminalization of the trade.  We celebrate the dignity and resilience of migrants who move, work, and take care of themselves and our families. We uphold Evelyn’s life as one of survival, and we remember her death by continuing the struggle for migrants to live and move freely, for the ability to resist displacement. We reject the discourse of “human trafficking,” which consistently fails to support or listen to the voices of sex workers, and denies the role of government laws in making sex worker lives precarious.

While we see Evelyn’s face, images of police officers, the burnt hotel room, and her alleged assailant in the media, there are names and faces that deserve even more scrutiny:

1) Jason Kenney, Chris Alexander, Ontario and Canada’s immigration laws

Evelyn came to Canada as a Live-In-Caregiver. Live-In Caregiver, like Evelyn, are paid about $1,500/month for a 50-60 hour work week. If Evelyn wanted to change jobs, she would have to find an employer willing to pay $1,000 in processing fees, which would most likely be downloaded onto her. The law banned Evelyn from working for anyone but her employer, and forced her to live in her employer’s home.

To get to Canada, caregivers like Evelyn typically pay between $1,500 - $5,000 or more to a recruiter abroad using her savings or taking out a loan. It is very possible that she was still indebted. After immense struggle, Caregivers in Ontario won legislation to ban recruitment fees for Caregivers three years ago, but the law remains toothless, without proactive enforcement. In the three years since the law was passed, Ontario was only able to recover about $12,000 in recruiter fees. Abuse of Live-In Caregivers is rampant, with stolen wages, broken contracts, and long hours being the norm.
When Evelyn arrived, Caregivers in Canada could apply for Permanent Residency after 2 years of work in an employer’s home. Broken as this process was, now Conservatives are planning to make it worse, reneging on its legal responsibility to give access to permanent status to Caregivers based on unfounded claims of “abuses” of the Live-In Caregiver program. This is part of a broader shift towards entrenching temporariness in Canada’s immigration system - where parents, grandparents, many spouses, and most low-waged people of colour can come live, work, or visit but not stay.

2) Peter McKay, Bill C-36, criminalized sex work and precariousness.

For Evelyn, working outside of her employer’s home was made criminal. If she approached the police about risks she was facing while working as a sex worker, she would face racism, stigmatization and whorephobia, and her lack of permanent status meant she would be threatened by criminalization and deportation. The police in Toronto, like in the rest of the country, routinely ignore complaints from sex workers, particularly when they are Indigenous women. Since April 2013, the family of Cheyenne Fox has sought justice for her murder, which despite immense evidence to the contrary, the police are deeming a suicide. In January 2014, police agencies across Canada engaged in widespread intimidation of sex workers, showing up under the guise of clients and forcing ID checks on 330 workers in multiples cities.

Though few rights and protections exist for migrants engaged in undocumented work, the added stigma attached to sex work means that abuses are rampant and protection unlikely. Once Bill C-36 has gained Senate approval, things are likely to get worse. Bill C-36 criminalizes clients and safety communication for purposes of selling sex. Bill C-36 will disproportionately affect and endanger street-based sex workers, many of whom are poor, Indigenous, racialized, and transgender people. For more information, visit www.migrantsexworkers.com.

3) Aquino, Harper, imperialism, displacement and the Philippines

Many of the places we once called home across the global South are impoverished by imperial policies developed in the North, and gleefully implemented by the rich and powerful elites who run our governments. In the Philippines, home demolitions, peasant displacement, and corporate land grabs destroy the land. Mining and environmental plunder has made it necessary for many to move, and impacts of global climate change have hit the country and its people with multiple typhoons. US troops join the Filipino Armed Forces in brutalizing resistance forces. Earlier this month, as US Marine beat and murdered Jennifer Laude, a Filipino transwoman, in the Philippines and is yet to be brought to justice. The Philippines government focuses on exporting its people as its primary economic strategy. This has meant that more than 1 million Filipinos leave the country each year in search of employment, safety and dignity.

Evelyn is one of these million migrants who are displaced each year, seeking ways to support their families aboard. Instead she found precarious work in a place like Canada where the laws criminalize and illegalize lives and livelihoods rather than ensure justice and dignity. Let us honour Evelyn’s life as we struggle for permanent immigration status, safety, and dignity for all women and mothers, migrants and sex workers -- for all workers.