Toronto human trafficking arrests shine spotlight on popular classifieds site. Sex worker advocates fear another crackdown

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After a series of human trafficking arrests involving the same online classifieds site, a Toronto sex worker says she worries a crackdown on internet sex ads could make her more vulnerable.

Toronto police have charged eight GTA residents with dozens of charges in four separate cases this year involving the website LeoList.com. In one, police say a 17-year-old schoolgirl was taken to a series of GTA motels by a man with a gun and forced to sell her body to strangers.

The latest bust was announced last week, after police say a man physically assaulted a 28-year-old woman several times, including one attack that left her with broken ribs.

In all four cases, alleged pimps forced women to place sex ads on LeoList.com and took all of their earnings.

In one, an alleged pimp even threatened a sex worker’s pet, police said.

“I can tell you stories that will fill your head,” Perry said.

But the Toronto sex worker, whom the Star is not naming because she fears for her safety, said she worries a sweeping crackdown against human trafficking on the internet could push independent adult sex workers underground.

The 30-year-old sex worker, whose real name is known by the Star, is a member of Butterfly, an Asian and migrant sex workers support network. She said she has been a sex worker in Toronto for two years.

She said sex workers use the internet to vet their potential clients and even ask for references.

“They can screen,” she said. “They can increase their safety.”

Toronto police declined to comment on LeoList.com. The Star attempted to contact the website by email and at a toll-free phone number listed on the site’s contacts page, but received no response.

LeoList.com’s terms of use ask users to immediately report suspected human trafficking to police and say the site will cooperate with law enforcement “to the fullest extent possible.”

There’s a major difference between sex trafficking, in which girls and women are coerced into prostitution, and the sex trade where adult women make independent decisions, said Karen Campbell of the Toronto-based Canadian Women’s Foundation.

The 2018 shutdown of the site Backpage.com, once a popular host for sex workers’ ads, was distressing for many, Campbell said in an interview.

“It pushed a lot of people back onto the streets,” she said.

Cracking down on online sex ads also won’t help undocumented women who are reluctant to go to police, she said.

“If they were to go to police, they would end up detained and deported,” she said.

Read more:

Backpage.com shutdown puts sex workers’ livelihoods, safety at risk, GTA advocacy group says

Beaten. Branded. Bought. Sold: A Star investigation into the dark underbelly of sex trafficking in Ontario

Sex trafficking case turns on whether websites can be held liable for content created by users

Perry said the average Toronto sex worker when he was on the job entered the sex trade at age 14.

There seemed no end to men wanting to prey upon them, Perry said.

“We had a mandate to rescue these kids, get them help and go after the pimps,” Perry said. “Every time we arrested a pimp, there were two or three to take his place.”

Perry said fewer sex workers could be seen on the streets after pagers became popular a few decades ago, a change he said made it tough for police to monitor their safety.

“A lot of the girls that used to work the streets were suddenly carrying pagers,” Perry said. “At least when they were on the street we knew them.”

When sex work was more visible on downtown streets, it was easier for social workers to try to help women and for police to keep an eye on their customers, Perry said.

“They may be in a more vulnerable position now because they have no interaction with police,” Perry said. “Prostitutes don’t generally walk into a police station and report intimidation.”

Some Toronto sex workers were local residents while others came from abroad, smuggled into the city on the hopes of getting a job, Perry said.

There was some organized crime involvement, often connected with bikers and strip clubs, he said.

Perry said he fears pimps now use websites to fly under the police radar and exploit women. Some websites are out of the country, presenting jurisdictional challenges for police.

“We’re almost giving a license for pimps to be anonymous and control women,” Perry said.

LeoList.com, which bills itself as “Canada’s classified site,” automatically redirects to the address leolist.cc — using the internet country code of the Cocos Islands, a tiny Australian territory. The contact page refers to Unicorn House Ltd., a company based in Budapest, Hungary.

To post an ad, users are charged a cost ranging from free to more than €2.50 ($3.75 Canadian) — the site bills in euros — depending on region and category.

As of Wednesday, a personals ad for a female escort in the GTA costs the poster €2.65. That same ad in Hamilton costs €1.79; an ad for a male escort in Ottawa is free.

The personals section contains dozens of recently posted ads for male and female escorts across the GTA. Many of the site’s other classifieds categories — including for vehicles, housing and jobs — appear little used.

The site’s landing page boasts it has more than 150,000 registered users and millions of total ads.

LeoList.com appears to have become more popular since Backpage.com was shut down by the FBI last year; before Backpage.com, classifieds site Craigslist was one of the most popular sites for advertising sexual services.

A study of sex ads on Craigslist released this year by researchers at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, supports the Toronto sex worker’s comments that the internet can make the sex trade safer.

The study suggests that the old Craigslist “erotic services” ads made sex work safer by helping sex workers screen out the most dangerous clients.

The internet allowed women to do background checks of clients, even seeking references, the Baylor team found. It also “may have caused outdoor street-based prostitution to transition to the safer, indoor channel,” researchers found.

Scott Cunningham, one of the study’s authors, said in an interview he suspects LeoList.com is absorbing a market once filled by Backpage.com.

“The market is probably adjusting in Canada,” he said.

Cunningham said he wasn’t surprised the Toronto woman said internet ads make her feel safer and freer of pimps.

“Sex workers have been saying this for years,” he said.

Peter Edwards is a Toronto-based reporter primarily covering crime. Reach him by email at pedwards@thestar.ca

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Baffinland says worker dead after single-vehicle accident at Mary River site

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Baffinland Iron Mines says a worker has died after a single-vehicle accident at the Mary River mine site. The company said in a statement that the accident happened around 5:06 a.m. Sunday morning.

The RCMP and the Workers’ Safety and Compensation Commission will investigate.

Baffinland said it has started a detailed internal investigation.

The Mary River mine is located on the northern end of Baffin Island, about 160 kilometres southwest of the community of Pond Inlet, Nunavut.

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London-area company fined $75k after worker permanently injured on the job – London

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An Ilderton company has been fined $75,000 after a worker suffered a permanent injury when a concrete culvert fell on top of him.

Geoff Morphew, 38, was working in quality control at Coldstream Concrete on Aug. 2, 2017, when a cable snapped, dropping a concrete culvert on his right arm.


READ MORE:
Man’s arm amputated following workplace accident in Ilderton, Ont.

He was rushed to hospital with serious but non-life-threatening injuries. His arm had to be amputated.

“The surgeons said if it had been an inch over, he would’ve been dead,” said Sarah Morphew, Geoff’s wife, following the incident.

Surgeons told her that the weight of the nearly 23,000-kilogram slab saved her husband’s life by cauterizing the veins. They told her that her husband would have bled out in “60 seconds” had the pressure of the slab not acted like a “Ziploc bag.”

“It was a blessing in disguise, I guess, that it happened that way, or else he wouldn’t have made it to the hospital,” she said.

According to the Ministry of Labour, two employees were working in the business’ heavy precast yard, moving three-sided concrete culverts from the bed of a trailer on to the ground using a gantry straddle crane and spreader beam.

The crane had recently been inspected and found to be in good working order. One worker operated the crane from the cab, and the other was on the ground, rigging the culverts to the crane.

The crane operator moved a 23,000-kilogram culvert from the trailer and set it down on the ground. The worker on the ground needed the culvert raised again in order to remove a metal date plate attached to the bottom of the culvert.

The operator raised the culvert about five feet and, while it was suspended, the worker on the ground reached underneath and started to chisel the date plate away.

While doing so, the worker heard a cracking noise and was knocked to the ground by the culvert. He suffered a permanent injury.

READ MORE: Worker at Ilderton concrete product facility pinned under large slab, seriously injured

Later examination of the crane showed it had suffered an unexpected and catastrophic failure.

Provincial law requires employers to make sure that any equipment that is temporarily elevated is properly secured so that it doesn’t fall. The Ministry of Labour said Coldstream Concrete failed to do that. The company pleaded guilty Thursday and was fined $75,000.

The court also imposed a 25 per cent victim fine surcharge as required by the Provincial Offences Act. The surcharge is credited to a special provincial government fund to assist victims of crime.

© 2018 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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TTC faces workplace safety charges in death of track worker

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The provincial government has charged the TTC with violating provincial safety regulations in the death of a track worker last fall, the Star has learned.

The transit agency has been charged with three offences under the Occupational Health and Safety Act in relation to the Oct. 1, 2017, incident that killed Tom Dedes, according to a summons from the ministry dated Sept. 24, 2018.

The maximum amount an employer can be fined for violating the act is $500,000 per count, plus a 25 per cent surcharge. A hearing on the charges is scheduled for Oct. 25 at Old City Hall.

TTC spokesperson Brad Ross said in an emailed statement that the transit agency “will respond appropriately” to the summons.

“As an employer of 15,000 dedicated women and men, nothing is more serious than the death of an employee due to a workplace incident,” he said.

Dedes, 50, was an 18-year veteran of the TTC at the time of his death. He was severely injured shortly after 2 a.m. at the agency’s McCowan Carhouse in Scarborough, when he was crushed between a parked pickup truck and a moving rail car. He was taken to hospital and died eight days later.

According to the summons, which was delivered days before the one-year deadline the ministry had to lay charges under the act, the TTC is accused of violating regulations that stipulate employers must erect barriers or warnings to protect workers from vehicle traffic, and provide adequate lighting to ensure employee safety. The agency is also charged with failing to take every reasonable precaution to protect a worker.

The precautions the TTC allegedly failed to take include “provid(ing) road markings defining the area swept by the tail of turning rail cars” and “provid(ing) a trained and qualified …work car monitor” to ensure a car doesn’t strike workers or equipment.

As the Star reported in May, as part of an investigation into this incident that was still ongoing at the time, ministry investigators found the lighting at the carhouse didn’t meet safety standards. Ministry guidelines stated there should be a minimum lighting level of between 20 and 30 lux, but readings found an average of just 8.3 lux at the site.

The TTC has since painted yellow lines to mark a safe zone around the curved track where Dedes was struck, but there were no such markings in place at the time of the fatal incident, the TTC told the Star in May.

Joanne Dedes, Tom’s sister-in-law, said in an interview the charges bring “some type of closure” to his family as they prepare to mark the one-year anniversary of his death.

“But it won’t bring him back. A life is lost, is lost,” she said.

“But at least hopefully the TTC learns from it to prevent any further deaths.”

In a statement sent Tuesday night, Frank Grimaldi, the president of the largest TTC workers union, said the organization “continues to grieve the loss of Tom Dedes.”

“ATU Local 113 hopes the charges against the TTC will result in necessary workplace improvements so such a tragedy never happens again,” he said, noting that the union “is strongly committed to improving the health and safety conditions of Toronto’s public transit workers.”

In 2008, the Ministry of Labour fined the TTC $200,000 in the death of worker Tony Almeida, who was killed while working with an asbestos abatement crew on the Yonge subway line. A platform on the work train he was driving struck the side of the tunnel, came loose, and crushed his operating cab.

The ministry also investigated the 2012 death of TTC track worker Peter Pavlovksi, who was struck by a rail car near Yorkdale station. The ministry declined to lay charges.

Ben Spurr is a Toronto-based reporter covering transportation. Reach him by email at bspurr@thestar.ca or follow him on Twitter: @BenSpurr

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