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December 11, 2017

Health Inspectors on the Front Lines in the Fight Against Human Trafficking

If you live in a city in the United States, you may have noticed an increase in the number of massage parlors in recent years. Unfortunately, these businesses can often become a hiding spot for exploitation and other illicit activities. In fact, there’s a good chance that the people who work in new massage parlors are victims of human trafficking.

According to the Urban Institute, almost 600 new illicit massage parlors opened in the United States between 2011 and 2013. The Polaris Project estimates that about 9,000 illicit massage parlors are operating, and according to victim service providers in Los Angeles, many of the massage therapists are forced into sexual exploitation or to work without pay. Often, traffickers lure them with false promises and trap them with debt bondage and the threat of violence.

Although it has taken time, some cities are now cracking down on these businesses. In November, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors passed a motion to craft a city ordinance to require routine inspections of massage parlors by health officials. Under the ordinance, massage parlors would be inspected annually, and all city health inspectors would be trained to identify signs of trafficking.

Even though the ordinance has not yet been drafted, the city has begun training health personnel to identify the signs of trafficking. This model of disseminating information about the signs of trafficking has shown to be successful. The group Truckers Against Trafficking, for example, trains truckers to identify trafficking victims—and they do so frequently. In fact, according to the Polaris Project, truckers have called the hotline number 1,534 times, resulting in 471 possible cases, possibly aiding as many as 1,033 victims.

Under the LA ordinance, inspectors would gain all-important access to massage parlors annually. This means inspectors would be able to communicate directly with employees and conduct thorough walk-throughs. They would therefore be able to discern evidence of trafficking, such as employees’ poor health and anxious or fearful behavior and signs that they’re sleeping in the facilities. This access is important as trafficking victims are often kept from speaking openly to outsiders or constantly watched by their traffickers. According to the Human Trafficking Bureau in LA, nearly every complaint that it gets about a massage parlor results in an arrest.

Los Angeles is not the only city with a plan to crackdown on the human trafficking hiding in legitimate businesses. Houston has implemented a similar program that applies to food establishments and cantinas—both among the most common sites for trafficking, especially forced labor. In Houston, efforts from the mayor have included training all 1,200 employees of the health department to identify signs of trafficking. Training inspectors who enter thousands of food establishments and bars increases the number of eyes looking out for this horrible crime.

Successful training efforts teach labor and health inspectors not only how to identify signs of trafficking but also how best to alert law enforcement officials and connect survivors with the services they need. There’s no one way to combat modern slavery, but the only way is to make it a priority, and a key part of the fight is providing inspectors with the requisite information and skills.