No happy endings in this tale of massage parlours

Love for sale? Promotional image for a Sydney massage parlour, taken from the website. 2aug2017
Love for sale? Promotional image for a Sydney massage parlour, taken from the website. 2aug2017

Illegal brothels are operating across Sydney, close to churches and schools, but government inaction makes it near impossible for councils to shut them down, Rebecka Davidsson reports.

In one recent case, the head of a leading private school complained that his students had to walk past a massage parlour offering “schoolgirl” services  online and attracting undesirable customers.

Throughout Sydney, sex is being sold on premises not licensed for sex work. Despite outrage expressed by communities and city councilors, police and councils lack adequate powers to control the problem.

To get a brothel licence owners need to meet certain criteria – location (the premises must be a minimum distance from churches, schools and public facilities), be of good character (no prior convictions) etc. The licence is very expensive and, once licensed, operators are subject to strict health controls and regular inspection.

Massage parlours are not subject to such strict controls, making them an attractive cover for shonky operators who claim to run legitimate massage services but advertise more extensive and explicit services online. Come-on lines suggest a conventional massage is not contemplated.

“New girl … Very beautiful & sexy with double D”

“… strong massage with … amazing explosive finish”

“Petite size 8 with well proportioned curves”

“Model that places your ecstasy as her top priority”

“stunning pert D cup for connoisseurs of fine female form”

“Will give you a GFE you always dream of”

“… someone who is easy to approach, give xxx a chance”

City of Sydney Liberal councillor Craig Chung complained to Hatch that there were four dubious “massage” parlours on Harris Street in Pyrmont alone. Walk down the street and they’re easy to find; a look at their websites makes it clear they do not offer conventional massage services.

Hatch spoke with a staff member at a café near one of the parlours who said a female customer who had gone to the parlour was told that the parlour “did not offer services for women” and turned away.

Mr Chung has urged Lord Mayor Clover Moore to take action – but the council’s hands are tied by weak legislation.

Why are they not being shut down?

A spokesman for City of Sydney told Hatch that the council investigates any concerns raised by the community about illegal brothels. Council staff visit suspected premises to check if the complaint is accurate. Staff and the operator may be interviewed.

If there is no evidence to support the complaints, the business will get a warning reminding the operators of the approved use of the premises and the allegations that have been made. If there is enough evidence that the premises are operating unlawfully the council will hire a private investigator to report on the business.

The council considers the private investigator’s findings before deciding whether to issue an order under the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act, ordering the premise to cease non-approved use.

“Over the past year, the City received approximately 80 complaints relating to 49 alleged unauthorised sex premises,” Hatch was told. “Of the 49 premises, seven warranted further investigations, including the execution of a search warrant in one instance.” One investigation resulted in a penalty infringement notice and an order to cease illegal operations.

Four cases remain under investigation.

When private investigation of suspected brothels is needed, most Sydney councils call in Lyonswood Investigations, which has specialised in such work for 10 years. Lachlan Jarvis, who heads Lyonswood, told Hatch he has three investigators actively gathering evidence while visiting suspected brothels.

“We just hand over the evidence to the councils, but I can tell you that brothels have been shut down as a result of our investigations.”

It can be demanding work…  investigators pose as clients to prove that prostitution is taking place. One investigator told a Sydney newspaper he had sex with women at 60 different locations in Sydney while gathering evidence for councils.

But even when clear evidence is gathered to show prostitution is taking place at a massage parlour, councils have found it nearly impossible to gain a conviction. In a landmark case in 2015, the North Sydney Local Court found that the Hornsby council had not satisfied the legal definition of “brothel” because it failed to show more than one woman was offering sex on the premises.

The council had hired a private investigator who provided evidence that he had sex with a woman, but New South Wales law’s definition of a brothel requires more than one prostitute to be providing services onsite.

The outcome of the ruling, Timebase reported, means local councils would have to fund multiple visits by investigators to suspected premises to have any chance of a court ruling in their favour. Since then, agencies have sent several investigators in at a time to build a case.

As one door closes, another opens

Despite the difficulties, Nick Cook, media coordinator for Hornsby Shire Council, told Hatch, Hornsby had shut down eight unauthorised sex premises in the past 10 years. He estimates 34 illegal brothels are still operating in northern Sydney. The problem is many of the operators simply reopen somewhere else. “Based on council’s previous experience, they tend to change location,” Mr Cook said.

Last year a Sydney newspaper reported on the case of one serial offender who had moved from the North Shore to the Sydney CBD after Willoughby council had her operation shut down.  The fine levied by the court would have been easily covered by two days’ takings, the paper said.

Since a Sydney newspaper first reported in 2007 that inadequate legislation was forcing councils to pay private investigators to visit brothels, successive governments have promised to fix things. While facing election in 2007, then Premier Morris Iemma promised to give councils more power to shut down illegal brothels. He promised to change the law so that councils would not need to prove actual evidence of prostitution to begin the court proceedings, but nothing was done by the time he resigned 18 months later.

The next Labor premier, Barry O’Farrell also vowed, in 2011, to establish a special licensing authority to oversee the sex industry, but that was never implemented.

Hornsby council was one of several that urged a 2016 state government inquiry into regulation of the sex trade to introduce a brothel licensing unit managed by NSW police but the government rejected the proposal.

The illegal brothels are not only a danger for the society, but also for the women who work there. Lena Silvasti-Pichler from Project Respect, a support organisation for trafficked women and women in the sex industry, explains why:

“At the moment we only visit legal ones [brothels] …. The next plan is to engage with women who work in the illegal sector [including massage parlours]. We have not quite yet figured out how to reach women there because there is obviously a different approach and more risk involved.”

Many of the women working in illegal brothels are of Asian origin and speak little English, making them vulnerable to violence and exploitation.

Lena told Hatch many may not even realise they are working illegally, and would not have access to the health and safety checks a licensed brothel has to provide for staff. – Rebecka Davidsson

Top photo: Love for sale? Promotional image for a Sydney “massage parlour”, now closed, taken from its website.