Bill targets businesses that disguise human trafficking

Bill targets businesses that disguise human trafficking

Council Member Craig Rice's focus is massage parlors, ‘bodyworks establishments’

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Rice

Council Member Craig Rice

Photo courtesy of Montgomery County

Council Member Craig Rice wants more government control over businesses that often serve as fronts for human trafficking operations.

On Tuesday, he introduced a bill to govern “bodyworks” establishments — loosely defined as businesses that offer acupressure, reflexology, and other treatments involving client-practitioner contact.

A 2018 report from the Polaris Project, a national nonprofit committed to ending human trafficking, found that thousands of victims are trafficked through “illicit massage businesses” every year. The storefronts often offer services such as foot massages at below-market rates and serve as fronts for trafficking or prostitution operations.

Montgomery County police have raided many bodyworks establishments over the last several years, often advertised as spas or massage parlors.

The county has required licenses for bodyworks operators since 2015, when then-County Executive Ike Leggett introduced new regulations as part of a push to reduce human trafficking. The bill requires business owners to go through a criminal background check and pay a $200 initial licensing fee before opening a bodyworks establishment.

Massage clinics don’t require county licenses as long as their practitioners are licensed by the Maryland State Board of Massage Therapy. But the practitioners at bodyworks operations aren’t required to hold licenses, Rice said.

During a council meeting Tuesday, Rice said the current network of laws has loopholes that make it easier for illegitimate businesses to operate in the county.

“This piece of legislation actually came from our Department of Permitting Services and our Department of Human Services, which partner to ensure businesses aren’t conducting illegal activity,” Rice said. “They asked us to follow up on the previous legislation and make some changes to it.”

The proposed bill aims to tighten county laws by reclassifying massage clinics as bodyworks establishments. It would also require practitioners at all bodyworks establishments — from massage therapists to reflexologists — to be licensed as a massage therapist or registered massage practitioner by the state.

Both require at least 600 hours of massage therapy instruction from a nationally accredited agency. Licensed massage therapists must also complete at least 60 hours of health care-related college courses. Unlike massage practitioners, they’re qualified to practice in hospitals and medical facilities.

“When it comes to folks being trafficked, oftentimes traffickers are not going to put forth the money or the time to put people through training,” Rice said. “And it basically says, if you’re going to be putting your hands on someone’s body, you need to know what you’re doing.”

That would also prevent unqualified practitioners from working with clients, which can cause health problems, Rice added. At Tuesday’s meeting, he urged neighboring jurisdictions to pass similar laws to prevent trafficking at a regional level.

Council Members Sidney Katz, Nancy Navarro, Gabe Albornoz and Hans Riemer all asked to be added as co-sponsors to the bill. But Council Member Tom Hucker, a lead co-sponsor with Rice, said the legislation was still preliminary and would likely be adapted as it moved through the legislative process.

Jodi Finkelstein — executive director of the Montgomery County Commission for Women and coordinator for the county’s Human Trafficking Prevention Committee — said both groups wanted to ensure the legislation was accompanied by resources for permitting and enforcement. The county was still determining the best way to curb unlicensed bodywork establishments while minimizing harm to potential victims, she said.

“We’ve been working on ways to make sure there are more legitimate businesses than illegitimate,” Finkelstein added. “And Montgomery County is not the only one struggling with this issue.”

A public hearing on the bill is scheduled for Feb. 4.

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