Further investigations by The Shift into massage parlours operating as brothels show that the industry is growing steadily, except operators and clients are seeking more private means of communication.
In July, The Shift had revealed how Malta’s weak monitoring and enforcement of human trafficking has created a blatantly illegal yet completely public sex industry.
Since then, The Shift has continued to monitor public and private chat groups between clients and service providers, and held interviews with sources from the industry who wished to remain anonymous.
They show that despite police action against one operator in a case that is ongoing in court, the industry shows no signs of slowing down. In fact, it continues to grow. The only difference is that clients are requesting more private communications channels to avoid detection.
The investigation found close to 100 online adverts for massage parlours in Malta that bear some or all of the characteristics of illicit activity, including: A rotating roster of women masseuses from Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe; an exclusively male clientele; hyper-erotic adverts of masseuses with obscured faces; and the provision of “outcalls” (house calls made by prostitutes).
The Shift has shown that over €16 million a year was generated out of illicit services offered in brothels thinly-veiled as massage parlours – a conservative estimate. The findings were the result of investigations done after access was gained to private chat groups used by clients to share contacts and ‘review’ the services provided by women.
These groups now show that exposure of the illegal industry has led to growth in the number of members in these private chat groups, with one group growing from 13 members in June to over 40 in August.
The services are openly promoted on Facebook, with provocative photos of women, prices and mobile number details. The Shift had also revealed that some owners of brothels were individuals that had already been charged (and sentenced) with human trafficking and forced prostitution and yet they were openly operating and advertising massage parlours with clear offers of sexual services.
A court heard on Friday how four women working in massage parlours had paid sex with between five and 12 men each on any given day – again, the owner had a previous record. Within minutes, the report by The Times of Malta on the proceedings in court was shared within the private chat groups.
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. Yet, private chat groups show that clients prefer outlets in smaller towns, away from the spotlight and traffic of highly populated areas like Sliema and St Julian’s.
Only two months ago, Home Affairs Minister Michael Farrugia told Parliament on 26 June that no reports had been filed of parlours being used as brothels.
While police action taken against the owner of the so-called massage parlour is positive, the larger operators continue unabated. Some have a track record of violence, and CCTV cameras inside the rooms where the service is provided has raised concern among clients, sources told The Shift. The presence of cameras in some massage parlours was confirmed in court on Friday.
Some of Malta’s massage parlours are legitimate, providing non-sexual massages, operating within normal working hours, and employing staff under normal conditions. On social media, their staff will say, “I do not do any extras”.
A total of 196 massage parlours were licensed in Malta by the end of 2016, according to figures presented in Parliament by Economy Minister Chris Cardona. The problem is, that no figures were available after that year – the government removed the need for licences in an industry linked to human trafficking.
The government did not make efforts to reduce the demand for commercial sex acts or forced labour, with the police filing charges against only two individuals for forced prostitution last year, the latest US global report on human trafficking noted while relegating Malta to a category shared by some of the worst human rights offenders in the world.