March 1, 2022 By Allie Griffin
A coalition of advocates, legal aid organizations and civil rights groups are calling on state lawmakers to pass a Queens legislator’s bill to decriminalize unlicensed massage parlors.
Assembly Member Jessica González-Rojas, community advocates and local massage workers came together at the Flushing Worker’s Center in Flushing Friday to bring attention to her legislation that would remove criminal penalties for massage workers who practice without a license.
González-Rojas was also joined by the Red Canary Song, a grassroots collective of Asian and migrant sex workers and allies based in Flushing.
According to the collective, massage work is one of the only licensed professions in the state in which criminal law is routinely used against unlicensed practitioners — who are largely Asian American women.
Gonzáles-Rojas’ bill aims to end police raids and alleged harassment by police officers against massage businesses. It would also prevent law enforcement officials from seizing massage workers’ property, including cash.
“For too long, the criminal legal system in New York has targeted massage workers, disproportionately those who identify as Asian women, without restraint or accountability,” she said in a statement. “I introduced A8281, the Massage License Decriminalization Act, to end the state’s ongoing punishment of these working-class, immigrant New Yorkers.”
Today I joined @RedCanarySong, @NYCLU & directly impacted workers to launch the Massage License Decriminalization Act. Massage workers are policed for unlicensed massage work & it particularly harms Asian migrant women. To #StopAsianHate we must end all forms of harm. pic.twitter.com/BSyEs6PS8H
— Jessica González-Rojas (@votejgr) February 25, 2022
A report — authored by the Red Canary Song, other advocacy groups and Brown University — found that law enforcement often targets massage workers under the guise of combatting sex trafficking. In actuality, the efforts entrench Asian massage workers into the criminal system, according to the report.
“For far too long, New York state has trapped workers practicing massage without a license in brutal misdemeanor and felony charges, cycles of criminalization and systemic poverty,” said Jared Trujillo, policy counsel at the New York Civil Liberties Union.
“Massage is one of the only unlicensed professions where its workers and associates are frequently subject to arrest and police violence, and over 90 percent of those arrested are Asian women and non-binary people,” Trujilo said.
A Korean massage worker who has been in business for two decades in Flushing said she now has panic attacks after her place of work was raided and she was arrested.
“We are afraid of raids, first and foremost. It’s so excruciating and frightening,” said the worker who gave only her first name, Charlotte. “I suffer from horrible panic attacks when I think [the police] are coming.”
Many Asian American massage workers have difficulty obtaining a massage license due to financial, educational and linguistic barriers, advocates said. They argue that the criminalization of unlicensed massage workers — as well as sex work — is criminalizing poverty.
“Decriminalizing sex work, including massage work, is an evidence-based solution that will allow marginalized communities to participate in the economy and survive in New York,” González-Rojas said. “It is time to put an end to criminalizing survival and for Albany to pass this bill.”
The legislation has support from fellow state legislators. Queens Assembly Members Ron Kim and Zohran Mamdani are among the nine co-sponsors. Queens Sen. Jessica Ramos has sponsored the bill in the state senate.