Proposed tougher penalties for human trafficking passed an N.C. Senate committee Tuesday.
Human trafficking is a form of slavery in which victims are forced to work or perform sex acts. The National Human Trafficking Hotline reported 181 cases of the crime in North Carolina last year.
Senate Bill 548, which unanimously passed the Senate Judiciary Committee, would make human trafficking a higher-level felony, meaning convictions would result in longer prison sentences. It also adds new regulations for massage therapy businesses to prevent them from being used by human traffickers.
“Illicit massage and body-work establishments are the second leading industry for the prevalence of human trafficking” behind escort services, said Sen. Shirley Randleman, a Wilkesboro Republican. “In North Carolina, we may be particularly susceptible to this abuse of the law.”
The N.C. Board of Massage and Bodywork Therapy would have a stronger licensing process under the bill, and unlicensed massage services would result in misdemeanor charges. Sexual activity would be banned in the licensed businesses.
“We believe that there are no viable options but to require some regulations to make sure massage therapists are licensed and workers are protected,” Randleman said.
The state would also require human trafficking awareness signs to be posted in adult entertainment businesses, businesses that sell alcohol, hospitals and highway rest stops. The sign would include information about the National Human Trafficking Hotline — 1-888-373-7888 — which helps victims.
Sen. Angela Bryant, a Rocky Mount Democrat, voiced concerns about a provision in the massage licensing requirements that says applicants must speak English. “It just seems like it’s a red flag for discrimination for me,” she said.
The bill was developed with help from Lt. Gov. Dan Forest’s office, whose attorney, Steven Walker, explained that the English requirement is in the regulations because the licensing test is in English. He said the requirement would also ensure that workers can read the human trafficking awareness poster.