The recent arrest of New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft was followed by the typical—albeit incomplete— debate concerning human trafficking in the public arena. The media and public focus gradually shifted from Kraft’s apparent transgressions at the Orchids of Asia Day Spa in Jupiter, Fl., to the plight of the women forced into modern-day slavery for the sole benefit of greedy and felonious human traffickers.
But there has still been no serious discussion about how to disrupt this thriving criminal industry within our country.
Law enforcement authorities in Florida and elsewhere noted that numerous massage businesses throughout the nation are nothing more than modern day brothels exploiting and abusing mostly foreign women who are enslaved through a variety of forced labor conditions.
As former federal prosecutors, we’ve investigated and prosecuted these prevalent cases for years, including United States v. Alexander Dubogryzov, in which a Russian defendant lured young Eastern European women to the United States to perform sexual acts for customers in his many massage businesses throughout Connecticut, New York and New Jersey.
Such cases are particularly difficult to prosecute because the women are moved so quickly from one facility to another and all transactions are done in cash. Thriving digital marketing operations ensure that the “johns” know which websites to use to find these illicit businesses.
The licenses hanging on the wall, to the extent there are any, are often always fake in these scenarios and thus, cannot be readily verified by law enforcement. In cases where the women are enslaved, they are understandably terrified of law enforcement due to the fear of deportation and may be controlled by other workers on behalf of the business owner, or trafficker, to ensure they don’t raise an alarm.
They often come to this country with debts that they, or their families, must repay, and for many there is the added cultural shame of being spurned by their families if they are charged with prostitution.
This type of criminal activity continues unabated because it is highly profitable. Recognizing that massage businesses are ripe for the exploitation of workers, let’s use the notoriety of the Kraft case as the impetus to make serious legislative changes to the rules governing the massage industry to prevent this modern-day slavery.
We urge state legislators nationwide to propose or strengthen current legislation to ensure that every massage therapy business register.
Such legislation should require the following of any such enterprise:
- It has a license to do business, and a tax ID number;
- All massage therapists in the business that perform massages at the location are lawfully permitted to work in this country and have the requisite licenses to do massage therapy;
- A copy of all therapists’ licenses is maintained at the place of business with a photo of the therapist included on the license and in a database accessible to all state and federal law enforcement; and
- A human trafficking alert is posted in the lobby of the business with telephone numbers to contact law enforcement and survivor hotlines.
Further requirements should include authorizing the state Department of Labor and local and/or state police to enter the business and request to see a copy of the licenses of all massage therapists (which again include their photo and an easy cross reference database).
Massage Code of Ethics
Moreover, the owner of the massage business should be familiar with the American Massage Therapy Association code of ethics; and understands that if any employee of the business performs a massage without holding a license, or a sexual act for a customer, he or she may be subject to criminal and civil penalties including, but not limited to, the loss of the right to do business.
None of these proposed changes or requirements is novel or remotely onerous; yet, there has been no discussion in the current media and public scrutiny surrounding the prosecution of Robert Kraft that has hinted at any type of massage industry overhaul.
Communities, customers and licensed massage therapists and business owners would welcome the removal of these illegitimate, criminal operations. Not only would services be free from worker exploitation; the elimination of this unlawful activity would improve the reputation of the industry as a whole.
We commend Florida law enforcement for their creativity in investigating this case and most importantly, in recognizing that the women in these facilities are likely there due to fraud, force and coercion, even if these victims are too fearful, or are not able, to articulate these abuses.
Let’s use this high profile scandal as an opportunity to prevent any further human trafficking in the massage industry.
Surely, that would be an ending we could all celebrate and one that is rightly owed to the many survivors of this human rights crime.
Krishna Patel is the Justice Initiative Director at Grace Farms Foundation and President of Unchain. Previously, she served as a federal prosecutor with the Department of Justice from 1999-2015, with stints as Deputy Chief of the National Security and Major Crimes Unit for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Connecticut.
Richard Schechter, Senior Adviser to the Justice Initiative at Grace Farms Foundation, served as a federal prosecutor with the Department of Justice from 1987-2016, working as a Senior Litigation Counsel in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the District of Connecticut as well as the Deputy Criminal Chief, a Senior Litigation Counsel and an Assistant United States Attorney in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the District of New Jersey.