In 2007, city officials celebrated a victory over the Asian massage parlors sometimes suspected of being fronts for brothels and human trafficking. The Massage Parlor Task Force closed down 17 parlors cited with at least three health and safety violations in a year.
The task force was created by Mayor Gavin Newsom after federal agents staged Operation Gilded Cage — a 2005 raid of 10 parlors involved in a South Korean sex trafficking ring. A rep from the City Attorney's office joined public health, police, fire, and building inspection officials in surprise nighttime visits to the parlors up to two times a month looking for code violations — things like the “masseuses” wearing lingerie or not having a license, and also fire hazards, secret trap doors, and people living on the premises. Police interviewed the masseuses one-on-one, gathering intel for investigations and identifying potential wage theft or trafficking victims.
“We've achieved most of the goals set for the program,” says Johnson Ojo, the Department of Public Health's massage program head. “Most of the bad places have been closed. We may be phasing out the task force.”
That's news to law enforcement and women's rights advocates, who say the parlors are still operating as brothels — with a city license. Just check out rubmap.com, the Yelp of massage parlors, where men rate “masseuses” on bra size, sexual skills, and willingness to perform sex acts.
SFPD Sgt. Arlin Vanderbilt says the threat of inspections is the best tool to stop the egregious trafficking of the Gilded Cage era. “We're concerned that if we're not in there constantly observing the conditions, those could change without our knowledge and could revert back to the way we were 10 years ago.”
The slackening of oversight is compounded by a almost certain cut in funds for the Health Department's own massage inspection program. Assembly Bill 619 went into effect on Jan. 1: Now, if an establishment only employs masseuses certified by a state-accredited licensing agency, it no longer has to pay separate permit and license fees to the city Health Department. Ojo hasn't yet tallied the damage, but says 75 percent of the inspector's salary is covered by massage license fees.
Ojo insists the department will still enforce health and safety laws in the parlors not paying these fees — for now. “We have the manpower, but we're not collecting fees. So who's going to pay for my staff's time?” says Ojo. “The city will continue to make visits, but we may have to re-evaluate the program down the road.”
Perhaps they'll have to start reading Rubmap.