“Today is always here […] Tomorrow, never.” Toni Morrison.
In late February 2019, Robert Kraft, the owner of the New England Patriots, was arrested in a strip mall in Florida and charged, along with almost 300 other patrons, with soliciting prostitution. Kraft was arrested in the Orchids of Asia Day Spa, one of the nondescript massage parlours in Palm Beach and Martin Counties that were raided by police as part of an investigation into human trafficking. Law enforcement officials believe that the parlours are part of a criminal network that stretches from China, to New York, and to Florida.
The women running and staffing the massage parlours were Chinese nationals, with the staff allegedly being held in indentured servitude. It was not the first time that the parlours had been visited by the authorities: the Florida Department of Health had conducted recent inspections, and had even taken numerous photographs of the working conditions. In those inspections, the paraphernalia of indentured servitude was all too apparent, with makeshift beds, clothing, personal effects, and suitcases strewn throughout the premises. It was clear that the women working in the massage parlours also lived there, further evidenced by office fridges stuffed with food, and the women themselves being seen outside, cooking on a grill behind the strip mall.
The women arrested were reluctant to speak to police and other authorities, partly out of shame, and partly out of fear of repurcussions. Women working at such parlours were allegedly expected to provide sexual services to patrons, with the offering of massages little more than a cheery front for more illicit activities. They lived furtive, secretive lives, smuggled from one location to another at night by their madam. They had their passports taken, and were often charged for the space in the parlour in which they slept. Always there was the threat of violence: some had guns brandished at them, others suffered beatings or were attacked by patrons. None, it seemed, had come to the United States to willingly work in a massage parlour. How is it, then, that women from across China might end up in such a place?
When living in Beijing, I had a language exchange partner who told me of a friend of hers living in indentured servitude in Birmingham. She had paid fees to “snakeheads” 蛇头, who facilitated her entry to the UK, and subsequently found herself without her passport, and working in a restaurant in the Chinese Quarter. This situation is not uncommon in the UK, and is often how indentured servitude may begin: the debts owed to snakeheads or other organised criminals for fake documents, or false instruments, or transit, or local connections are “paid off” through exploitative labour, whether in the legal or illegal economies. The beginnings of indentured servitude can therefore be voluntary, as the victims are hoping to find some kind of better life overseas, having deemed their current one worth escaping. They are induced into debt, which is then leveraged against them and their futures. Additional threats or other pressure may also be made against them, and in their vulnerable position the victims are unable to resist*.
It is similar in the US, where debts expose already vulnerable individuals to risk of exploitation. Fees charged by snakeheads can range wildly from $1,000 to $70,000 per person, and working in massage parlours such as the Orchids of Asia Day Spa is viewed as a fast way to repay the debt owed. The parlours themselves form part of a network of criminality that involves the snakeheads in China, as well as multiple parlours in the US. Strings of parlours will be run by the same people, with a manager who has been working in the sex industry for perhaps decades overseeing operations, as well as a front person who owns the parlours through a shell company, creating levels of opacity and a recognisable hallmark of illegality. Jobs are posted online or in Chinese language publications, and attract also students who have overstayed their visa so as to not return home. Their status in the US also renders them vulnerable to exploitation, and unlikely to seek assistance from any authorities.
Conditions in the massage parlours are much the same, as women will invariably have their passports taken for “safety”, thus preventing their leaving the US or even their identification. Women will largely be kept out of sight of the public, and are shuttled between locations by drivers employed by the parlours. All will live under a cloud of debt and the threat of potential violence. Living conditions are cramped, with a numerous women living together on makeshift beds. As well as pay “rent” for their meagre living space, many are required to supply their own condoms, and service up to or more than 10 patrons a day, often on the same massage tables on which they sleep at night.
The raids in Florida came to public attention due to the arrest of Robert Kraft – who, at time of writing, has decided to go to jury trial – which has also served to throw light onto the broader issue of indentured servitude in the US. The raids have revealed, in part, how such servitude can arise, as well as the apparatus that exists to funnel women mostly from Fujian and Zhejiang provinces to the US, and into massage parlours and other such establishments. It is interesting to note, however, that the arrests focussed on the patrons and the madams of the parlours, as opposed to the women providing the sexual services. This is a recognition that these women are victims, not criminals.
*It may strain credulity, but my language exchange partner told me that she too wanted to travel to the UK via snakeheads.