Help Stop Human Trafficking in Pierce County – Part I

Linda Frank

There are several ways in which human trafficking has become a huge problem in Washington state, putting our safety – especially the safety of our youth – at risk. This article focuses on the trafficking that I’ve become most familiar with – the low-cost ‘foot massage’ shops that have sprung up all over our communities in recent years. Some of these storefronts not only exploit their workers and foist untrained, unlicensed workers on the public, but some are also serving as fronts for prostitution. Since we have a major sporting event, The US Open, coming to University Place June 15-21, and there’s been some national and international discussion and confusion in recent years as to whether such events result in increased trafficking, I’ll include what I’ve learned about that in this article. There are easy and safe ways in which we can all help our Department of Health and law enforcement shut these facilities down, and I include links and instructions for everyone to readily access when/if they encounter these facilities and/or elsewhere-situated unlicensed massage or reflexology practitioners at the end of this article.

Trafficking in the burgeoning ‘foot massage’ industry
Up until last year, I never thought twice about the ‘foot massage’ places I’d occasionally seen in strip malls as I drove by. I’d never gotten close enough to see their open-til-midnight signs or the reflexology charts some display in their windows that might have piqued my interest, since I’d taken a reflexology workshop back in the 1980’s and utilized it some in my massage practice.

Then last May, when I looked into what it would take for me to practice foot reflexology in Washington as a former New York-licensed massage therapist, I learned that these ‘foot massage’ shops had become so prolific and so problematic in Washington that our state legislature created new law in 2013 in an attempt to help stop the trafficking some engage in.

Our State Legislature’s response to this type of trafficking
The 2013 law required all practitioners of massage or reflexology to post their state license and certification numbers publicly – not only in their workplaces, but in all of their advertisements.

And since reflexology was being exploited by some as a way to skirt the state’s massage laws, the new law put in place rigorous requirements for the practice of reflexology, including state certification with educational requirements, a reflexology exam, a jurisprudence exam, AIDS training, and a background check. The intent was to minimize the public’s exposure to unlicensed, and therefore potentially-untrained, practitioners.

However, even with the new law in place, low-or-no-wage workers were still the only ones who could be cited for practicing illegally, and those who were exploiting them would often put them right back to work after complaints were filed or the police made arrests for prostitution. There were limited deterrents for the business owners and/or traffickers.

In April of 2015, teeth were added to the law, when Governor Inslee signed into law a bill that enables us to hold business owners responsible for harboring unlicensed and uncertified massage or reflexology practitioners. That bill, SHB1252, was passed unanimously in both our House and Senate.

What to look for
I don’t know how many of the low-cost ‘foot massage’ facilities are engaging in trafficking and/or prostitution, but I’ve had friends and reflexology clients tell me they and/or their male companions are offered full-body massage, with motions sometimes being made for men to head for a back room!

If you or friends happen into these storefronts, ask the practitioner his or her name. Then ask to see their license. Not the business’ license, though it would be good to look for that as well.

Each practitioner of massage or reflexology must have an individual practitioner license. Note whether the name given to you matches the name on the license, because sometimes one practitioner gets licensed, and all the other workers then ‘share’ that license. A massage license begins with MA followed by a series of digits; a reflexology certification begins with an RF followed by digits. (Just to clarify, a Certified Reflexologist has to have had two hundred hours of training in reflexology alone and have fulfilled all the state’s criteria for getting certified. Licensed Massage Practitioners, most of whom have had a brief introduction to reflexology, can use reflexology in their massage practice, but cannot present themselves as a certified reflexologist unless they have also gone through the extensive training and certification.)

Exploited workers, or legitimate business?
If you use these places, as people whom I know have – not ever thinking that the workers could be trafficked, or paid little-to-nothing – just remember these workers could be untrained and/or exploited. It’s important to know whether you would be contributing to such exploitation, or patronizing a legitimate business (though it’s hard to contemplate how a $25- or $19.99-per-hour rate could cover any kind of decent worker compensation and also cover rent and other business overhead). If the rates seem too good to be true, they usually are. King 5 did two interesting investigations in 2010 and 2013 into worker exploitation and other problems (including a case of client molestation) in low-cost foot massage shops. The trafficking is reportedly a problem nationwide, but apparently especially so in Washington since we one of the states with ports. I’ve heard from some in the massage and reflexology professions that brokers go to the boats with offers to ‘advance’ the funds necessary to get ‘great work’ and housing, for which their visa or passport is then taken as ‘collateral.’ That’s a classic way in which to keep workers essentially enslaved, as they never can make enough to buy back their documents.

What you can do to stop those practicing massage or reflexology illegally
There are easy and safe ways in which we can all help our Department of Health and law enforcement shut these facilities down.

All unlicensed practitioners – and now those who employ them – can be reported to the Department of Health. Forms can be found and submitted online – or you can print out a form and submit it anonymously. The Department of Health will want your contact info in case they have more questions, especially if you’ve been worked on and possibly hurt by an unlicensed practitioner, but if you would like the Department to keep your name and contact information confidential, you can print out the form and send it in with a notation that you wish to file the complaint anonymously.

I spoke with the Department of Health recently, and they recommend that folks also call law enforcement in addition to filing a complaint with them. DOH issues the cease and desist order, but law enforcement can help shut the offending businesses down and make sure they don’t get re-licensed.

Do large sporting events, such as The US Open and Super Bowl, exacerbate the trafficking problem as some say?
Based on the limited time I could devote to research on this aspect of trafficking, the answer is both yes and no!

While large sporting events apparently do not increase trafficking per se, it is believed to increase the movement of those trafficked for sex, and the marketing of them.

In other words, The US Open coming to University Place will not send traffickers out in droves to recruit new victims to exploit. It ‘just’ means there will likely be more who are trafficked for sex brought in to our communities, and more ads for trafficked sex placed on Backpage and wherever else pimps ply their victims’ wares.

As one article I read pointed out, those who pimp trafficked sex workers are business people and areas hosting large sporting events provide a larger audience for their ‘merchandise.’

Homes rented for The US Open could be misused for sex-trafficked victims
And, as I was told by a woman who worked on the issue with Sandra Day O’Connor and Cindy McCain, when Phoenix was to host Super Bowl 2015, it could mean some of the homes rented in University Place would be used for prostitution activity – since hotel rooms near the venue are limited. So if you happen to see lots of different men going in and out of a neighbor’s home that went up for rent during the Open – a home in UP or Fircrest or Tacoma that more than likely would have innocently been rented to presumed golf enthusiasts – it couldn’t hurt to notify the police. Lt. Scruggs with Tacoma Police told me they are “aware of it, and are watching it.” At the time of the writing of this article, I’ve not yet heard back from University Place police, but based on what I read and watched about what the Phoenix police did to prepare for Super Bowl, I’d venture an educated guess that the UP Police are on it as well.

There’s no indication, and no reason to believe, that the importation of victims trafficked for sex would harm residents. I just wanted to mention that there could be an uptick in that activity in the area, and I think most residents would want to be aware of that.

As Polaris, one of the national organizations working on human trafficking notes: “Modern slavery is a multi-billion dollar criminal industry that denies freedom to 20.9 million people around the world. And no matter where you live, chances are it’s happening right down the street. From the girl forced into prostitution at a truck stop, to the man discovered in a restaurant kitchen, stripped of his passport and held against his will.”

Fighting human trafficking begins with awareness.

For more information and actions to take
I list below some of the many organizations working on the issue, from local to global.

Washington Engage provides recommendations for books and films and for ways to engage.

Here is my personal recommendation for a film and a book. I saw the film The Whistleblower with Rachel Weisz, based on a true story of sex trafficking at high levels of government, at the Tacoma Grand Cinema years ago and it raised both my consciousness and my ire. It is currently available on Netflix. Subsequently, I read the book Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof and his wife Sheryl WuDunn. Kristof has a blog page about trafficking and the New York Times has a webpage about trafficking, including links to Kristof’s remarkable Times columns on trafficking and freeing victims of it.

National Human Trafficking Resource Center provides information about how to get involved.

For more information about finding a legitimate reflexologist, see the brochure here by the Reflexology Association of America and the American Reflexology Certification Board.

Local certified reflexologists may be found, by city, on the Washington Reflexology Association website.

Local Licensed Massage Practitioners may be found, by city, on the American Massage Therapy Association page, or if you can verify licensure by name on the Department of Health website here.

The state licenses issued to all business owners can be searched for, by name, so if you have reason to believe a business might be a front for prostitution or worker exploitation, that would be a worthwhile place to check.

Part II of this article will come from Washington Engage, a statewide organization with local chapters that is among other things addressing the way in which traffickers are exploiting our youth. They’ll talk about what’s being done in schools, communities, and our legislature to help stop it. The statistics are alarming in terms of the number of our youth being recruited, the age at which they’re being recruited, and the ways in which they’re being recruited, often by peers. So this is not just an issue that applies only to runaways or internet exploitation. This is on-the-ground, in-our-midst trafficking. We can help stop it.