Inspector John Spiteri (right) is in charge of the prostitution investigations (Photos left from the old Facebook pages of convicted massage parlour owners)
The proliferation of brothels loosely disguised as massage parlours has raised fears that an industry profiting off trafficked women is booming in Malta and is operating in broad daylight.
And it is a fear that Inspector John Spiteri, from the police’s Vice Squad, takes extremely seriously.
“All our investigations into massage parlours start from the point of departure that we are dealing with a possible case of human trafficking,” Spiteri tells me in his office at the Police HQ. “Human trafficking is a complex legal issue as it requires the recruitment and transportation of a person to a country against their will through coercion or deceit. We’ve found victims of human trafficking but, in most of our cases so far, the women voluntarily entered that line of work.”
“After analysing their phones, we found out that they knew exactly why they were coming to Malta. Some actually asked the massage parlour owner if they could come and work here and some had actually come here two or three times in a year, so they knew full well what they were getting themselves into. I can’t say offhand what percentage of the prostitutes come here voluntarily but it is definitely higher than the ones who are victims of human trafficking.”
These women, the Inspector explains, aren’t being pimped but are technically acting as the business partners of their employers – with whom they split their profits.
“In fact, these women decide when and if they want to work,” he says. “If they feel like taking a day off then they are free to do so and the massage parlour will remain closed.”
The allure of prostitution is obvious. If a prostitute sees an average of four clients a day and charges each of them €50, which is the going rate according to prostitutes who testified in court, then she will earn around €6000 a month. After splitting the earnings with her employer, she will pocket a handsome €3000 – practically double the average Maltese wage and quadruple the minimum wage.
To put their earnings even more into perspective, the massage parlour prostitutes often come from countries like Colombia, where the average monthly salary is €600, and Ukraine, where it is only a measly €280.
“It’s true, this line of work pays well,” Spiteri says. “Some foreigners earn around €200 a month back home, come to Malta to work in a massage parlour while telling their relatives they’re working in a hotel or cleaning company, earn €3000 in a month here and return home with money that would have required three years of work to earn back there.”
And yet the police still clamp down on massage parlours and prosecute the prostitutes’ employers when there isn’t a case of human trafficking. This is because, while prostitution per se isn’t illegal, it is against the law to own or run a brothel or to live off the earnings off somebody else’s prostitution.
“We believe that no one wakes up one fine day and decides to become a prostitute”
Inspector John Spiteri
John Spiteri during a recent interview with One News
This action, Spiteri explains, is carried out with the prostitutes’ best interests at heart.
“We believe that no one wakes up one fine day and decides to become a prostitute, and even when they come here of their own free will we still dig deeper to try and discover the underlying problem,” he says. “Even though prostitution pays well, these women can still come to Malta, find a decent job and earn decent money relative to the €200 they would have earned back home. If you work here as a waiter and willingly work long hours, you’ll have a high chance of earning €1200 a month. Yes, prostitution pays better but it also comes with its risks of STD and violence…not that we’ve ever had cases of violent clients but there’s always going to be a risk in the underworld.”
Several massage parlours all around the island – from St Julian’s and Fgura to Birkirkara and Pieta – have been shut down recently to bring to a close long police investigations. One of the massage parlour owners even had one of his properties confiscated by the state, a punishment Spiteri believes will serve as a harsh deterrent for people thinking of entering this industry.
Spiteri was naturally coy on the specifics of the investigations, but confirmed police officers never pose as clients so as to catch the prostitutes red-handed, as that would constitute entrapment. Instead, the investigation involves investigating the massage parlours’ social media pages, conducting groundwork by the massage parlours and halting clients who have just left the building.
One of the recently-closed massage parlours
“We know what’s going on inside these buildings because people give us first-hand experiences, including how much they paid, who the girl [they had sex with] was and how many girls were inside the building,” he says. “Clients aren’t criminally responsible but we do make them to testify in court about their experiences.”
Funnily enough, not all clients are after a happy ending.
“Some clients have told us they just had a massage and, after speaking to the girls, it resulted that they really did only have a massage and were only charged €25.”
Spiteri has already noticed a change in the operation of massage parlour owners since the recent clampdown, with some acting more cautious on what photos to upload to Facebook and others even closing of their own free will.
“It is better to deter crime than to react to it, which is why an open court is so important in a democratic society,” he says. “Our message must be clear that this is a continuous fight, and we must try as much as possible not to displace the crime as street prostitution was displaced into new brothels. We must stay aware of any new trends in the market, always keeping in mind that the prostitutes are victims.”
What does the law state?
Human trafficking: When you traffic a person for the purpose of exploiting them, by making use of violence or threats, deceit or fraud, by giving or receiving payments or benefits to achieve their consent, or by misusing your power, authority or influence.
Penalty: Six to twelve years imprisonment
Pimping: When you use violence or deceit to induce another person into prostitution.
Penalty: Three to nine years imprisonment
Living off the earnings off prostitution: When you knowingly live, wholly or partially, off the earnings of somebody else’s prostitution.
Penalty: Maximum two years’ imprisonment, up to four years is the prostitute is a minor
Brothel running: When you keep, manage or share with others the management of a property that is used for prostitution
Penalty: Maximum two years imprisonment and a fine of up to €465.87
Brothel renting: When you knowingly rent out a property for the use of prostitution:
Penalty: Maximum six months impriosnment and a fine of up to €116.47.
Allowing someone to use your property for prostitution: Even if you’re not profiting off it, it is illegal to allow somebody else to use your property for the purposes of prostitution.
Penalty: One to six months imprisonment