Human trafficking has been the focus of some legislation in this year’s session of the North Carolina General Assembly. Most recently, SB 548, “Strengthen Human Trafficking Laws/Studies,” was passed Thursday night. It focuses on the massage and bodywork industry.
Sen. Shirley Randleman (R-Wilkes) is the primary sponsor of the bill that would increase the level of felony charge from F to B2 for human trafficking an adult. If a child is involved, the felony level would be increased to B1.
The bill requires licensing of establishments providing massage and bodywork therapy services, and makes it a Class 1 misdemeanor to employ any person to provide massage and bodywork therapy services who is not licensed to provide such services and is not exempt from licensure requirements.
It also requires massage and bodywork therapists to obtain a statewide privilege license, and establishes regulation of the businesses that offer massage and bodywork by the NC Board of Massage Therapy and Bodywork. Sexual activity in any licensed establishment is prohibited under the bill.
The bill also would require public-awareness signs containing information about the National Human Trafficking Resource hotline to be displayed at specified establishments and locations.
It would also direct the state’s Department of Health and Human Services to study the feasibility of providing human trafficking training to health care providers, emergency medical providers, and relevant first responders.
Human trafficking is defined as forcing, fooling, or frightening someone into performing labor or sex acts for profit.
Randleman explained the bill to the Senate Judiciary Committee on June 6. “As in all industries, there are good actors and bad actors. Unfortunately, the bad actors in the massage and bodywork industry have already linked massage and bodywork businesses to the human trafficking epidemic we have in the United States,” Randleman said.
“In North Carolina, we may be especially susceptible to this type of abuse of the law and victims. For years, we have only regulated the licensing of massage and bodywork therapists. Some while back, it was discovered that the Massage and Bodywork Therapy Board was unable to regulate the establishments that provide these services.”
Randleman also said, “With the overwhelming evidence on a national level that there are illicit massage and bodywork establishments that are participating in the scourge of human trafficking, we believe that there is no viable option but to require some sort of regulation to ensure that all massage therapists are licensed, that proper and legal protocols are followed, and that the workers are protected.”
According to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, North Carolina had 181 reported cases of human trafficking in 2016, including 130 related to sex trafficking and 41 related to labor trafficking.
Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, in a video expressing his work with lawmakers on SB 548, said, “Our state currently ranks in the top 10 nationwide for documented cases of human trafficking. In fact, over the last 10 years, 2,700 individuals have been recorded as having been victims of either sexual or labor human trafficking.”
Professor Dean Duncan of UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Social Work heads up Project No Rest, an organization working against human trafficking. Duncan said this bill may strengthen the efforts to fight human trafficking.
Duncan also said that research has found that posting the sex trafficking hotline signs have been helpful when placed, as this bill directs, in places that serve alcohol, adult establishments, state rest stops and welcome areas, and job training centers.
Forest said, “We must pass this bill as an additional step to ending human trafficking in all of its forms.”
SB 548 passed in the House Rules Committee Thursday morning, and was added to Thursday’s House calendar.
The bill passed in the House with an amendment offered by Rep. Allen McNeill (R-Randolph) stating that the NC Board of Massage Therapy and Bodywork may require massage and bodywork establishments to prominently display a sign with the National Human Trafficking Hotline telephone information. The bill went back to the Senate for concurrence in the changes made by the House, and it passed 40-0. The bill will be sent to Gov. Roy Cooper.