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Behind Illicit Massage Parlors Lie a Vast Crime Network and Modern Indentured Servitude

Patricia Mazzei, 03/11/2019

We stopped thinking about just cages, bars and chains as the means of coercion  

She was 49, a recent immigrant and deeply in debt to a loan shark back home in China when she answered an employment ad three years ago that promised thousands of dollars a month, but offered no job description. She realized too late that she had been tricked into working at a massage parlor in Flushing, Queens, where besides kneading backs, she was expected to sexually service up to a dozen men a day.

Some of the clients were violent, and the boss charged $10 a day for her to sleep on a sofa in a room at the parlor where rats nibbled on her food. “The customers were very terrible,” said the woman, who, ashamed of the stigma of her former profession, asked that her name not be used. “After you perform a service, they would find an excuse to take the money away.” They would, she said, “do even worse things.”

In strip malls across the country, neon signs and brightly colored placards promise hot stones, acupuncture and shiatsu with photos of women or couples receiving relaxing shoulder rubs. But a traditionally Asian form of therapeutic relaxation with deep roots in big-city Chinatowns has spun off a different kind of massage parlor that has little to do with traditional remedies. It has exploded into a $3 billion-a-year sex industry that relies on pervasive secrecy, close-knit ownership rings and tens of thousands of mostly foreign women ensnared in a form of modern indentured servitude.

The frequently middle-aged women who work in parlors with names like Orchids of Asia and Rainbow Spa are often struggling to pay off high debts to family members, loan sharks, labor traffickers and lawyers who help them file phony asylum claims. In some cases, their passports are taken and their illegal immigration status keeps them further in the shadows, with some of them rotated every 10 days to two weeks between spas operated by the same owners. Forced to pay for their own supplies and even their own condoms, many women must sleep on the same massage tables where they service customers and cook on hot plates in cramped kitchens or on back steps.

“We stopped thinking about just cages, bars and chains as the means of coercion,” said John Richmond, the State Department’s top anti-trafficking official. “They are using nonviolent forms of coercion.”

The recent arrest warrant filed against Robert K. Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots — and the solicitation charges filed against nearly 300 men in multiple jurisdictions as part of the same case — riveted national attention to a stretch of Highway 1 along Florida’s Treasure Coast dotted with strip malls, gas stations and sapphire ocean views. Across the region, parlors were empty and many frequent clients were phoning their lawyers, wondering if more warrants were going to drop.

Law enforcement officials said there were an estimated 9,000 illicit massage parlors across the country, from Orlando to Los Angeles. The epicenter of this national underground is the bustling Chinatown in Flushing, in the New York City borough of Queens. Women — typically Chinese, but also Korean, Thai and East European — arrive at Kennedy International Airport, learn the trade and are sent out to places like Virginia, Iowa, Texas and Florida. Women are recruited locally through ads in Chinese-language newspapers or over the social network WeChat.

“Flushing is the center of this network,” said Lori Cohen, the director of Sanctuary for Families’ Anti-Trafficking Initiative, which has interviewed around 1,000 massage workers over the past five years and helped the 49-year-old immigrant who was sexually assaulted leave the business after she was arrested. “They are showing up in different parts of the country, but all of them have addresses in Flushing, Queens,” she said.

The women are paid just a sliver of the $60 or more the client pays for an hourlong massage. Their real money — and chance at a better life — comes in the form of tips, which they are encouraged or forced to amplify through illegal means.

 
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