- Associated Press - Monday, June 26, 2017

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - North Carolina lawmakers are pushing to pass legislation to fight human trafficking during what could be the final days of their working session.

Last year North Carolina ranked among the top 10 states for the number of human trafficking cases reported, according to statistics from the National Human Trafficking Hotline. There were 181 cases reported in 2016. That’s up from 110 cases reported the previous year.

“Every day in North Carolina women are being raped for money and we want to make it stop,” said Rep. William Brawley during a news conference earlier this year. The Republican from Mecklenburg County is the sponsor of a human trafficking bill that would establish a pilot program to educate middle and high school students about the dangers and signs of the forced sex trade.

Members in both chambers have also proposed legislation that would require massage and bodywork therapy establishments to be licensed. Sponsors say these businesses are sometimes used as a front to promote prostitution and illegal sexual activities.

“It’s impossible to go into one of these places and not notice what’s going on,” said Bo Quickel of Vigilante Truth, a faith-based advocacy group aimed at putting an end to human trafficking.

These types of shops are located throughout the state, employing women who aren’t licensed, are from another country and speak little English, Quickel said, adding that the women have often been lured in for jobs and are then forced into prostitution, working for little to no pay.

Clients who walk in pay the owner or manager of the establishment for a massage, but are often later solicited by the masseuses for sex acts in exchange for more money, Quickel said.

There’s presently no law regulating the establishments and under current law, only massage therapists have to be licensed.

This legislation “is very important to the health and safety of our North Carolina citizens,” said Rep. Allen McNeill, a Republican from Randolph County. According to McNeill, who’s co-sponsoring one of the bills, there’s no charge against the owners for employing people who don’t have a license, thus making it easier for them to move and open another establishment elsewhere.

Businesses with unlicensed employees “provide an unfair competition to those professionals who are intending to do everything correctly and by law,” McNeill said.

Under the House bill, however, it would be a misdemeanor to employ a person who is not licensed, McNeill said. It would also prohibit sexual activities at these establishments. The House approved the measure in a 107-5 vote last week.

The Senate passed a similar bill Monday that would make it a higher level felony for violating human trafficking laws and spread awareness about the forced sex trade. Additionally, there’s funding in the budget bill for more than 21,000 human trafficking awareness signs to be displayed at adult establishments, hospitals, rest stops and other places.

But not everyone is on board with the proposals, specifically the human trafficking language. According to James Specker, spokesman of the American Massage Therapy Association, while the organization supports efforts to fight the issue, it doesn’t agree with the signs being placed in all massage establishments, particularly those who are doing the right thing and don’t want to be linked to human trafficking.

“We feel this is an unnecessary burden on law abiding and legitimate health care professionals and further perpetuates the connection of this criminal industry to the practice of massage therapy,” Specker said in a statement.

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