Work permits are being handed to foreign massage therapists at a rate of one a week, prompting concerns that a number of massage parlours are serving as a front for prostitution.

Thirty-nine new work permits were issued up to October, 27 to Chinese women.

In all, 508 employment licences for female massage therapists were issued in the past 10 years, going up to 93 permits last year from a mere 23 in 2006.

A Chinese former massage parlour worker told The Sunday Times of Malta that “some ladies who come here as massage therapists are sex workers”.

Speaking on the condition of anonymity, Wang Jing* said she knew women who were already sex workers in China but wanted to earn good money abroad.

“They choose this work because it provides them with a good income to support their families. In Malta, they earn at least €4,000 a month, but they declare some €700. Some pocket much more, especially if they are young,” she said.

Asked about Ms Wang’s claims, police sources said their experience supported her views that a substantial percentage of massage parlours did in fact provide sex services.

The issue came to light earlier this month when figures released in Parliament revealed that a quarter of pimps arrested in Malta were not Maltese; six of the 11 foreign pimps were in fact Chinese.

‘Prostitutes working from massage parlours’

Police sources had told the Times of Malta that “a number of Chinese, and other foreigners for that matter, arrested for pimping and prostitution offences were operating through massage parlours. Some of them are only posing as massage parlours”.

Giving an insight into this industry, Ms Wang said she had arrived in Malta through an agency that supplied her with a visa, a place to live and an employment permit against a fee of €5,900.

These agencies advertised their services for jobs outside China together with all the required permits on Chinese papers. The job opportunities included chef, ‘massage’, nursing, domestic assistance and au pair services.

The agencies’ fees varied between €3,000 and €14,700, depending on the area and the final destination. Rural areas were cheaper than urban areas and the most expensive fees were levied for services that secured employment in the US, Germany and the UK.

The fees paid by the prospective employee were eventually split between the agency and the final employer.

Building on her claim that some masseurs are working as prostitutes, Ms Wang said the women’s age significantly impacted their income.

She said most of these masseurs in Malta were over 40, but most claimed to be younger – a ploy that easily fooled clients since they worked in poorly lit rooms.

The money they earned was then transferred to their husbands and children back in China on a regular basis, mostly through a money transfer service that did not require a bank account, she said.

In Malta they can earn at least €4,000 a month, but they declare some €700

Asked to explain how these women were paid, Ms Wang said that on entering the parlour the customer ‘bought’ the time he wanted to spend – this varied between €20 and €60 an hour and the amount was split between the boss and the ‘masseur’ who pocketed 25 per cent of the earnings. On top of this, the woman received tips that were agreed upon directly with the customer and varied according to the ‘services’ provided.

Ms Wang said some of the women lived in the parlour itself, rather than sharing an apartment with other women.

“This means they save money and work even longer hours,” she said.

Most parlours, she added, were equipped with CCTV and the money was collected on a regular basis. Ms Wang mentioned an incident where a hold-up took place but this was never reported so as to avoid drawing the police’s attention to the illicit activities.

Asked if the women took any precautions to protect against sexually transmitted diseases, Ms Wang said: “Condoms are rarely used to avoid leaving any traces in case of a police search… Plus many customers don’t want to use it. In cases where it was used, customers were asked to take the condom with them.”

She said no medical check-ups are carried out on these women, adding that they did not seem remotely concerned about contracting STDs. Moreover, some took tablets to suppress menstruation to enable them to work uninterrupted.

Apart from working in massage parlours, some women were “self-employed” and operated from private apartments and garages using small adverts with telephone numbers.

Unless these women were sent away by their bosses or caught by local authorities and deported, they normally worked at a parlour for about five years.

The bosses, Ms Wang claimed, had good contacts with the authorities and she alleged there were instances where ‘massage therapists’ were exposed so that their ‘employer’ would not have to pay them.

“Most of the bosses are Chinese.

“There are also Maltese bosses and these are better as they do not force a woman to carry out sex work she does not want,” she said.

* Name has been changed

39 permits for therapists granted this year

Thirty-nine new work permits for massage therapists have been issued by the Maltese authorities so far this year – 27 were granted to Chinese women, five to Thai women, two to Indonesians, two to Serbs, and one permit to an Azeri, a Turk and an Ukrainian.

These figures do not include 24 work permits that have been renewed, leading to a total of 63 employment licences for female massage therapists between January and October 2015. Just three new work permits were issued to men to perform ‘massage therapy’; these were granted to two Indians and a Chinese national.

In the past 10 years 508 employment licences were issued to female massage therapists. Chinese top the list (233), followed by Thai (148) and Serb (29).

The scenario is different when it comes to men – 62 work permits were issued during the same period. The top three nationalities were Indian (26), Thai (nine) and Chinese (eight).

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