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Industry expert: deregulation fuels human trafficking, prostitution in Arizona massage industry

A 2019 bill allowed Arizona to “unwittingly” inherit a human trafficking and prostitution epidemic within the massage therapy industry, the leader of a national massage therapy organization said Friday. 

The bill, HB2569, says that any occupational or professional license from another state is valid in Arizona as long as the person with the license is in “good standing” and has no pending investigations into unprofessional conduct in other states.

“The problem is that Arizona isn’t able to apply its typical standards,” Debra Persinger, Executive Director of the Federation of State Massage Therapy Boards said at a presentation to the State Board of Massage Therapy

“It is now forced by law, by the new legislation, to accept [massage therapy] credentials from other states. And because massage therapy regulation is not uniform across the United States, Arizona, by default, I’m sure it wasn’t the intention of the Legislature, inherits the weakest link states,” Persinger said.

The state board has seen an upswing in Chinese nationals from California applying for Arizona licenses and getting disciplined by the board, many of them after arrests for prostitution.  

The massage industry in California, which is a major hub for Asian sex trafficking, isn’t regulated by a government agency, Persinger said. 

“There’s no kind of safety net going on in California and they show up here, and are apparently allowed to practice,” she said. 

Arizona was the first state in the nation to allow recognition of out-of-state occupational licenses in many industries, part of Gov. Doug Ducey’s deregulatory efforts that he hopes will grow business across the state.

“Universal licensing recognition will take the next step in ensuring new residents can get to work faster,” Gov. Ducey’s office reported at the beginning of the 2019 legislative session.

Ducey’s office projected 100,000 people would move to Arizona throughout 2019 and the bill was meant to tackle unemployment and ensure work as soon as possible.

“We know that whether you make your living as a plumber, a barber, a nurse or anything else, you don’t lose your skills simply because you pack up a U-Haul truck and make the decision to move to Arizona,” Ducey told Capitol Media Services when the bill passed in April 2019.  

The universal licensing recognition spans several industries, from electricity to health care.

Tom Augherton, executive director of the state massage board, has said in public meetings that the board had been briefed on the dangers of the massage industry.

“Massage is being used as a beard for prostitution in Arizona,” Augherton said at the Jan. 7 study session of the Governor’s Regulatory Review Council. “We are powerless to do anything with regard to the problem with the cartels and the prostitution.”

Augherton said board agendas are filled with Chinese nationals who speak no English seeking licensing, and some are represented by large law firms and appear with translators. 

Patrick Ptak, Ducy’s spokesman, said his office hasn’t been in touch with the Federation of State Massage Therapy Boards, but records show 11 individuals have taken advantage of the new law through the Arizona board since it took effect on Aug. 27. 

“This law eliminates unnecessary hurdles to get to work while including protections for public health and safety,” Ptak said. “It’s important to note that newcomers are still required to be licensed and regulated by the appropriate Arizona regulating board.”

Persinger, federation Director Tom Ryan and Director of Government Relations Lorena Haynes shared simplified regulatory strategies for eliminating human trafficking in illicit massage businesses.

The federation based the majority of their presentation and a 2017 Task Force Report on research done by the Polaris Project that said massage licensing should include “smart regulation,” Persinger said, to prevent human trafficking.

The federation disclosed the most common indicators of human trafficking and prostitution. Among them are prices below the market rate, a business’ reliance on tips, majority of clientele is male, entryways to establishments are locked, the establishment has covered windows and side entrances.

The federation’s regulatory strategies addressed plans for states that are members of the nonprofit and ones for the organization itself.

Ryan suggested that states participate in the massage therapy licensing database, massage school oversight programs and follow-up with audits in order to maintain diligence in recognizing fraudulent licenses. 

The federation hopes to continue promoting awareness, develop human trafficking training for licensed massage therapists, evaluate accrediting bodies for massage schools and weigh the benefits of massage school standardization. 

The federation repeatedly said human trafficking is not always connected to sexual exploits and is often part of a larger network of business or domestic and foreign organized crime.

The human trafficking task force report estimated that as many as 9,000 illicit massage businesses may be active in the United States.

“Human trafficking is linked with fraud in massage therapist education and in the licensing pathways,” the report concluded.

At the presentation, the federation voiced their concern for legitimate professionals in massage therapy if regulations are not applied to the licensing and schooling process.

Human trafficking in the massage industry “endangers therapists and [compromises] reputations” of regulatory boards, small massage establishments and professionals, according to the human trafficking task force report.

2 comments

  1. Without any evidence that even 1 of the 11 people who received licenses under recerprocity is a prostitute or human trafficking victim, this expert claims Arizona has an epidemic of massage-related prostitution and human trafficking. Really?
    Rep. John Kavanagh

  2. According to the public meetings held each month there have been 3 to 5 cases of request for reciprocity each month where the women were cited in California for prostitution only to have the charges reduced via a plea.

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