Home affairs minister Michael Farrugia told Parliament on 26 June that no reports had been filed of parlours being used as brothels. Yet, an investigation by The Shift News found a number of massage parlours that exhibit all the indicators of commercial sex operations and human trafficking that law enforcement authorities could have found if they had bothered to look.
The Shift News used the standards outlined by the Polaris Project, a Washington DC NGO dedicated to fighting modern slavery to assess the situation, since Maltese law enforcement authorities are obviously turning a blind eye:
- Advertised price below market-level: illicit massage parlours price in the low range of around €30 to €35 for a massage while mid-range parlours price at €45 and five-star hotel spas price at €85 to €99. In practice, illicit parlours have a shadow price – they charge more once clients ask for “extras.” One particular parlour offers clients a one hour massage with a “bj” (blow job) for €70. Others stop at an “hj” (hand job) for €50.
- Women asking clients for tips: The Shift News has seen messages in a secret messaging-app group in which clients complain that at one illicit massage parlour a “cute” “Asian” woman only “let’s you play with her” for a “tip” in addition to the €35 massage fee. This is supported by a previous report of a Bugibba parlour that charged a €30 fee and offered clients “more” for a tip.
- Women working excessive and irregular hours: A number of illicit parlours advertise opening hours from 9am up to 10pm. Illicit parlours leave their lights on after opening hours. Increasingly, illicit parlours and Facebook accounts with men’s names are openly advertising the services of their women in “outcalls” – house calls made by a prostitute (“now doing outcalls – call on XXXXXXXX”).
- Serves primarily or only male clientele: users of all the illicit massage parlour Facebook pages analysed by The Shift News are exclusively male and parlour staff female. On these pages, illicit parlours post photographs of their women, with their faces obscured, which receive hundreds of “likes” and other reactions from a mixture of Maltese and non-Maltese men. Many men post comments underneath the photographs, asking about the woman’s age (“how old pls?”), nationality (“maltese?”), name (“name of the brunette?”), location (“where is she?; which outlet pls”), and complimenting them on their “tits” and “ass”, and suggesting sexual activities (“wanna suck your big tits”; “can i massage u”). As women’s faces are obscured in the photographs, men demand to see their faces and met with replies from other men, including “with a body like that, why do you care about the face?”.
- Clients can only be called or buzzed in: attendance at an illicit massage parlour is usually possible only by appointment. Social media adverts for parlours always insist on calling a number written across a photograph of the outlet or one of its women. Some insist on making calls through the encrypted WhatsApp application. Parlours offer to send potential clients photographs of their women over WhatsApp. The phone numbers are all Maltese and are not advertised with names.
- Covered windows so passersby cannot see into the parlour: illicit massage parlour shopfronts are invariably completely covered with vinyl stickers of massage scenes and/or women in erotic poses over their windows and doors.
- Regular rotation of women: illicit massage parlours advertise the services of particular women at different times and places, with slogans like “Black Diamond [an alias given to a black masseuse] back in our Mosta outlet from 1pm tomorrow!” while another will say “Hot 19-year old from Venezuela in B’Kara for one night only!” or “LIANA – new girl from Poland”. That illicit parlours are staffed by women on a rotating basis is a clear sign of human trafficking and sexual exploitation, where women are re-trafficked from one place of exploitation to the next. The UN Migration Agency writes that the “principal aim of this stage is the isolation of the person and the creation of a relationship of dependency with the trafficker”. Polaris Project adds this rotating practice serves to “maintain a fluid buyer market”.
- Advertising on social media and sex websites: it is staggering that most illicit massage parlours openly advertise their sex operations online. Users commonly find them on online adverts for “massages” or “therapeutic” sections on classified advertising sites like MaltaPark.com and Backpage.com, which was recently “seized” by the US Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI), and across countless Facebook pages and groups, some of which have been closed by Facebook due to inappropriate content.
The Shift News found close to 100 Facebook pages of massage parlours in Malta bearing some or all of these characteristics. The government’s deregulation of massage parlours and lax enforcement from the police is allowing a blatantly illegal industry to boom publicly.
Malta has seen a boom in massage parlours over the past decade, with a concentration in St Julian’s and Sliema and smaller numbers in Gozo, Naxxar, Rabat, Paola and Tarxien.
Read more: Malta’s sex slaves – hiding in plain sight
The Shift News also saw secret messages in which parlour clients discussed their sexual activities at various parlours with different masseuses.
Despite Malta’s boom in massage parlours, the Malta Police Force conducted only 17 “inspections” of massage parlours from 2015 to 2017, resulting in 15 arraignments on charges of human trafficking, sexual exploitation and employment law breaches.
The deregulation of massage parlours highlights grave concerns related to human trafficking. The result is that men can get their happy ending without anyone noticing whether the woman involved had a choice or was trapped in a trafficking ring.