Florida is known as a hub in the nation for human trafficking. With Human Trafficking Awareness Month coming to a close, lawmakers are continuing efforts to curb the practice, by putting more measures and penalties in place to shut down illegal massage parlors.
“After drugs, humans are the second most trafficked item in the world. And, this is happening right in your own backyard. Who would have ever have guessed some ugliness would ever live among such beauty?"
That’s the first few words of a video about human trafficking prepared by the Clearwater Human Trafficking Task Force. It’s being watched by a group of lawmakers in the House Criminal Justice Committee, who are also hearing some victims share their stories.
“The first day in the United States, he bought me some clothes and told me I had to have sex with these men. There were 25 men a day. I lived in a tiny room. You could hear us crying ourselves to sleep each night,” said one young woman from the video.
That woman is recalling how she was so desperate for money to feed herself and her young daughter who she had at 15, that she went to the U.S., thinking she’d be cleaning houses, only to learn the man who had talked her into coming to this country was a human trafficker.
Over the years, state lawmakers have been trying to clamp down on the practice.
Last year, the Legislature passed a comprehensive measure designed to enhance Florida’s human trafficking laws, with new criminal penalties, like making it a second degree misdemeanor for a person to operate a massage parlor and they or their employees don’t have a valid government ID. But, despite that, lawmakers received reports that there are still some illegal massage establishments getting around the new law.
Now, the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee is working on a bill that would crack down on those massage parlors, that are still places where prostitution and human trafficking can be found.
“This bill is not a partisan issue. We’ve all got members in our community who are being subjected to a horrendous way of life, servitude and sexual trafficking and this bill is designed to prevent that,” said Democratic Representative Dave Kerner, one of the measure's sponsors.
The bill prohibits a person operating a massage parlor to live or allow workers to live at the business. It also makes it a first degree misdemeanor to operate a massage establishment between the hours of 10 and 6 a.m., when human trafficking is likely to happen.
Some lawmakers worry about the impact this would have on legitimate massage businesses, but Chair of the House Committee Republican Representative Matt Gaetz says the bill allows for some exceptions.
“If there are folks who are legitimately conducting their business, even if they’re legitimately conducting their business, late into the evening at a hospice facility, a hospital, a hotel establishment that has an ancillary license at the direction of a physician who may tell a pilot, someone who works at a restaurant who gets off late and may need a therapeutic massage. Our intent is to ensure that that activity will continue without abridging that commerce,” said Gaetz.
Still, one of the biggest proponents of the bill, the massage industry itself, argue the time frame needs to be broadened. Here’s Florida State Massage Therapy Association Legislative Chair Alex Spassoff:
“We’re looking at maybe from midnight to 5 a.m. A number of our people in the Metropolitan areas get calls from people, like airline pilots, theater performers, entertainers who travel and come in late, international travelers who come in from overseas at a late hour," said Spassoff.
"They’re on a different time clock than we are. So, those people want to continue doing their business lawfully.”
Spassoff says they’re also going to be working with lawmakers to put more procedures in place so law enforcement and prosecutors have the tools they need to identify legitimate versus illegitimate massage parlors.
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