Vancouver's plan to make massage parlours safer for the people stuck in the sex trade could make some progress but ultimately will be handcuffed by Canada's criminal laws, according to a criminologist.

John Lowman says the city's heart is in the right place with a strategy to increase inspections of massage parlours, and change those business's licenses to better reflect what really happens inside.

But unless the city can offer some kind of amnesty for the criminal activities it's likely to find in those massage parlours, more women could be put in danger when the businesses are prosecuted criminally, he said.

"The municipalities' hands are tied by the current legal system. They're stuck," he said.

Last week Vancouver's city council voted to create a task force to examine how to tackle concerns that some of the roughly 2,000 sex workers in Vancouver were being trafficked or abused in massage parlours.

City councillor Kerry Jang told CTV News that he wanted to see educational programs to help some women realize they're being abused or trafficked, and help them out of the trade.

But he also wanted more inspections and greater co-operation between municipal inspectors and the police.

"We're trying to make sure that sex workers aren't being taken advantage of or being abused," he said.

But that doesn't mean a lighter hand from law enforcement, he said.

"It's business as usual for the police. If there is criminal activity they will investigate it," he said.

That puts the city in a no-win situation, said Lowman.

"The plan to acknowledge what is happening is a double-edged sword." Lowman said. "On the one hand, monitoring increases safety.

"On the other...all you've got to do is have a change of mentality in a police regime and use all that information, instead of making women safe, you just prosecute those locations," he said. "What's the guarantee that won't happen?

That makes it in the brothel's interest to hide from law enforcement and find another way around a licensing scheme, such as fake certifications, he said. If it's successfully shut down, the women may be put on the street, he said.

Jang acknowledged that any attempt to shut down a brothel using licensing rules could land more women in trouble.

"If it's not done properly, they might force the place underground. In which case the abuse can happen with impunity because we can't find them," he said.

Jang said he recognized the limitations of what the city can do, but he said it was still important to raise awareness of the vulnerability of women in the sex trade and do something to protect them.

"This is the first step that outlines broad strategies," he said. "We need to prevent businesses from becoming fronts for prostitution, and help these women out.

Watch CTV News at Six tonight for a full report with CTV's Jon Woodward.