Amid a crackdown on illegal activity stemming from Prishtina’s massage parlors, employees and experts are doubtful that the obstacles to cleaning up one of Kosovo’s shadiest industries can be overcome.
Midnight has passed, yet Egzona* is used to finishing her working day around now. The 24-year-old, who works as a masseuse in one of Prishtina’s massage therapy parlors, never thought that she would end up in this kind of job.
“My friends don’t know and I don’t want them to,” says Egzona. “I feel embarrassed to tell anyone that I work as a masseuse.”
Originally, Egzona had a completely different future in mind. She moved from Peja to study architecture at the University of Prishtina, but quit her studies shortly after so that she could begin working.
“Initially, I worked in the food section of a supermarket. After some health issues that I had I left my job and now, for nine months, I have been working as a massage therapist,” she says.
She found out from some friends that working as a masseuse in Prishtina paid much more than her current job, so decided to try it out.
“At first, I hesitated before touching people, massaging them, but later I got used to it,” she says, explaining that the money is good, and the tips from clients are even better. “Only my mom knows about it, and whenever I go home, she insists I change my job.”
Egzona admits that working in the massage parlors is not easy, and wants to move to Germany and work in any other industry to get away from it. While sharing some uncomfortable moments from her first days as a masseuse, Egzona explained that she is secretive about her work because of the illegal activities occurring in some of these parlors.
“At the beginning, there were some moments when I would burst out crying,” she says. “I was not used to being asked if there would be something more than massage therapy involved.”
Illegal sex work, covert filming and human trafficking number just a few of the criminal activities happening behind the closed doors of some of Prishtina’s massage parlors. Despite regular inspection and a tough police response over the last few years, public institutions still deflect responsibility for the unlawful operation of the parlors.
Suspicious activity leading to shut down
At the end of 2016, Kosovo Police shut down 30 premises offering massage services across the capital. The initiative, which aimed to identify potential victims of human trafficking and combat the phenomena, involved the Directorate for Investigation of Economic Crimes and Corruption and Directorate for Investigation of Trafficking in Human Beings.
Additionally, labor inspectors, inspectors from the Tax Administration of Kosovo and from the Municipality of Prishtina worked to identify other administrative and business-related irregularities during the inspection of the massage parlors.
Two years later the initiative is still in force, yet the problems persist, say the Kosovo Police.
Since 2018, Kosovo Police have closed down 42 massage parlors, 10 of which were closed due to their criminal involvement in human trafficking and facilitating prostitution.
“The number of persons arrested under suspicion of committing the criminal offense of human trafficking is four, while for the criminal offense of facilitating or compelling prostitution and providing premises for prostitution, there are 31 suspected persons,” the police said to BIRN, adding that all of those arrested since 2018 under the initiative are from Kosovo.
According to them, the other 32 parlors were closed down temporarily as a result of non-criminal irregularities in the daily work of the parlors, identified by the police during inspections.
The initiative by Kosovo Police continues this year.
A press conference was organized in March by the Kosovo Police and Prishtina’s Municipal Inspectorate to come up with concrete goals and clear results for the initiative.
“We have conducted nine operations in 2019 in order to prevent this phenomenon,” says Riza Murati, head of the Kosovo Police Directorate for Investigation of Trafficking in Human Beings. “We have inspected 48 parlors, 22 of which are closed due to irregularities.”
“In these parlors, we have encountered five women who were under the age of 18,” he continued. “11 individuals were arrested in three different operations. In the same period last year, there were 44 people [arrested].”
The Criminal Code of the Republic of Kosovo states that the criminal offenses of facilitating or compelling prostitution and providing parlors for prostitution are punishable with between three and 25 years of imprisonment.
Unpaid wages, no contracts and dangerous conditions
Parlors offering massages in the municipality of Prishtina are registered as businesses by the Kosovo Business Registration Agency, ARBK.
ARBK says that the conditions and criteria that have to be satisfied to open a massage parlor are no different from opening any other kind of business.
A registration mechanism which falls within the Ministry of Trade and Industry, MTI, ARBK says that 110 massage parlors have been registered as active businesses, with 186 people declared as employees upon registration.
However, data from the Tax Administration of Kosovo, TAK, reveals a different number of massage parlors from those declared by the Kosovo Police and ARBK.
“The number of massage centers identified in Prishtina during on-site visits is 55, out of which 12 are inactive and two others are closed,” said TAK in a statement for BIRN. Out of the total number of massage parlors, only 28 are paying the required taxes, they said.
The Labor Inspectorate within the Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare, MLSW, has also found irregularities in these parlors.
Basri Ibrahimi, Chief Labor Inspector for the MLSW, says they have inspected many of these massage centers and have imposed fines for violating the Law on Labor.
“We have inspected 43 parlors in Prishtina, with 16 fines imposed for different issues,” says Ibrahimi. “For example, we encountered non-payment of wages, lack of contracts for employees, non-payment of additional work, failure to provide annual leave for the employees and we have also encountered citizens of foreign countries without work permits. Also, we had some fines in terms of work safety.”
The labor inspectors have imposed fines of up to 10 thousand euros on these massage parlors, he says.
Ibrahimi told BIRN that the inspection of these premises is challenging for inspectors on the ground, and in some cases can become dangerous.
Owners of these businesses have attacked job inspectors on at least two occasions, says Ibrahimi. Legal proceedings are underway in Gjakova regarding one of these cases. The other incident occurred in Prishtina, where one individual threatened the inspectors who issued a fine to their business. According to Ibhrahimi, these aggressive reactions to inspection stem from the high cost of fines imposed by the Labor Inspectorate.
“To be very honest, we only inspect these massage establishments with police units because we cannot inspect them alone. You are aware this is an area on the periphery of crime,” he says. “Thus, there is a possibility that behavior towards inspectors may be inappropriate and unlawful. I say this based on the experiences in the past.”
According to Ibrahimi, the risk in this field continues to increase, knowing that the owners of massage businesses are people who have problems with the law.
“As we already know, good men do not deal in this kind of business,” he says. “These are often people with criminal records. This is a serious problem for our inspectors.”
Human trafficking in Prishtina’s massage parlors
Kosovo has institutional and legal mechanisms for preventing and combating trafficking in human beings, but this phenomenon remains a challenge for Kosovo institutions. For 18 years, the Center for the Protection of Victims and Prevention of Trafficking in Human Beings, IDVT, has worked to shelter and rehabilitate victims of trafficking in Kosovo.
“In 2007, Kosovo was a transit and destination country for trafficking in human beings. Since 2017, Kosovo is considered a country of origin,” say the representatives of the center.
For the first time, in 2007, five women from Kosovo were admitted to the center as victims of trafficking. In total, from the center’s establishment until 2008, 552 foreign women and girls found shelter and rehabilitation in this center.
The trends in trafficking have changed since the declaration of independence in 2008, the center’s representatives say. Since then, the amount of Albanian women seeking protection as victims of trafficking has increased.
304 Albanian women, including those with Albanian nationality, have been sheltered in this center since 2007.
In addition to rehabilitation, the center also offers reintegration for victims, providing training, psychologists and jobs. Representatives of the center explained that they are struggling to continue helping trafficking survivors.
“The Kosovo government should pay more attention to the measures taken to prevent the trafficking of human beings,” they say. “[The government] should also help the center to become more sustainable. In the past there have been periods when we had to close down, and we had nowhere to send the girls who were being sheltered.”
Representatives mentioned the massage parlors in the capital as one of the businesses involved in human trafficking. The center has a message for those who frequent the parlors.
“We appeal to people not to use the massage facilities that offer those services, because the work there is unlawful,” they say.
During 2018, Kosovo Police encountered people under the age of 18 working in several of the premises inspected.
“In four local massage parlors, five people under the age of 18 have been found working, and three Kosovo citizens have been identified as victims of trafficking, and two others from Albania,” the police said to BIRN.
In 2018, the center accepted two girls under 18 working massage parlors in Prishtina, along with 10 others in total considered to be victims of trafficking.
According to the Police, the four parlors involved were shut down.
Hidden cameras inside the massage parlors
In a televised report from RTK published in June 2018, one massage parlor employee raised another concern – parlor owners setting up covert cameras inside the rooms where the massage service is provided. This was verified by Kosovo Police, who said that they encountered these cameras on occasion during inspections.
“There were cases where covert cameras were installed in the massage rooms and, when dealing with these cases, we acted according to law,” said Kosovo Police.
The Law on the Protection of Personal Data clearly defines in what circumstances a private business can instal cameras, and requires the explicit consent of those being filmed.
Jeton Arifi, the director of the National Agency for Personal Data Protection, says that they have not received any complaints about violation of this law so far.
“If it is proven that covert cameras are being set up in these environments, then we are dealing with flagrant violations of the privacy of the citizens who visit these establishments,” Arifi told BIRN. “This leaves room for civil lawsuits to be filed against the owners of these businesses.”
He says that, under this law, his agency cannot conduct inspections to see whether parlors are unlawfully installing covert cameras without meeting the requirements that would allow them to film inside the massage premises.
Once a new law is passed by the Kosovo Assembly, Arifi says, the agency will be able to increase its competencies and carry out field inspections.
“The Law on Personal Data Protection is very close to approval by the Assembly, after which the Agency will conduct inspections and gather evidence to discover whether there really are any hidden cameras inside certain businesses,” says Arifi. “Serious measures imposed in the form of fines would be imposed, reaching two to four per cent of their total turnover from the previous year.”
Certified massage parlor’s survival at risk
Shkumbin Rakovica has owned Thai Massage in Prishtina since 2010. He explained why he opened his business in Kosovo and the inadequate procedures for registering and starting the company.
“Personally, I had some problems with my back because I have not been able to have it treated either here or in Germany,” says Rakovica. “I found treatment when I was in Thailand. The idea to open a massage center in Kosovo has been quite personal. The problems I had with my back, many others must have them, so why not?”
“When I opened the massage center in 2010, the licencing procedure was very complicated. Initially, I had to go to the municipality, then to the Ministry of Labor and Social Welfare and Ministry of Internal Affairs, thus, it was very difficult,” says Rakovica.
Rakovica’s massage parlor employs five women certified as Thai massage therapists, all originally from Thailand.
Rakovica says that the treatment his parlor offers is incredibly beneficial.
“Massages can help with the most common chronic illnesses, headaches, spondylosis, spinal cord [pain] and many more,” he says.
He acknowledged the many businesses opening up in Kosovo offering massages. According to him, these massage centers have damaged his business. Rakovica says that, when they come to his business, people often think “something else is offered here.”
“With the addition of the new massage centers, the competition has become quite large and this has brought our survival into question,” he says. “At first they misunderstood the massage mission, people thought that there could be other services, but now they know that only massage is offered here.”
The dangers for unqualified and unprotected massage therapists
According to one masseuse working in a Prishtina massage parlor, women that provide massages are not professionals, do not possess the necessary diplomas and courses to practice their profession and, moreover, to protect themselves before the inspections, they have also found illegal methods to obtain masseuse diplomas.
“I have not done any training for massage work, but I have read about it and watched on YouTube how to do massages. In fact, we do not have a diploma, but we tell clients that we have it,” she says.
According to physical therapist Irfan Tefiku, a practicing masseuse needs to be qualified, explaining that “The therapists on the Massage Register are obliged to complete a certification programme on massage therapy.”
In order to have qualifications to practice and be included on the Massage Register, a massage therapist program recognized by the Ministry of Education should be undertaken.
As confirmed by the data of the Kosovo Police, within some of the massage establishments in Prishtina, the lack of qualified massage therapists contravenes the law.
Frequent inspections by inspectors and the Kosovo Police asking if these workers possess the necessary documentation for their job has pushed some of the women working there to seek out other alternatives.
“One of our colleagues possesses a diploma, but she paid 600 euros to get it. As far as we know, the person who issued the diploma is one of our clients. He lives in Prishtina and issues diplomas in exchange for money,” says Egzona.
The women working as massage therapists know very well that they may be under the scrutiny of police investigators or other inspectors. Moreover, Egzona explains, they are very cautious about communication between themselves and their customers. They do not give anyone phone numbers and they do not own the numbers they use, instead choosing to buy them from a street salesman to avoid registering their name in connection with the number.
Each masseuse has her own clients, who sometimes bring gifts when they go to these massage parlors. Egzona shows her expensive necklace, a gift from a client from Sweden, while saying her colleagues receive expensive lingerie, shoes and other items as gifts alongside large tips.
Egzona explains that salaries for working in the massage parlors vary and are regulated differently depending on the parlor, but that she is paid around double the average salary in Kosovo.
“We are very satisfied with what we earn, up to 700 euros. Sometimes even more,” she says. “We do not get paid a monthly salary. If you are one of the clients, you pay 30 euros [for a one-hour massage] and I earn 10, and sometimes they leave tips.”
During her interview, Egzona describes a number of intimate or sexual acts that can be required working in the massage industry. According to her, the requirements vary from one parlor to the next. In some, a client is required to pay extra for sex acts to be performed, while in others, sexual and other intimate acts are offered with the basic massage fee, because of competition and to increase value for clients.
“I heard that in some other massage centers there are masseuses who do almost everything, without any tip, merely to attract clients,” she says.
Institutional responsibility for massage parlor licensing
While the functioning of these massage parlors remains problematic, where to assign institutional responsibility for the licensing of these establishments remains unclear.
According to the Kosovo Business Registration Agency, ABRK, their institution is an administrative registration body with no responsibility to investigate suspicious activity occurring within the operation of those businesses.
Additionally, licenses for massage-related businesses are not issued by the Ministry of Health. According to them, the ministry only issues licenses for health institutions and is therefore not responsible for investigating the conduct of those businesses or revoking their licenses.
“The Ministry of Health licenses institutions offering therapeutic physiotherapy services offered by physiotherapists who fall into the category of healthcare institutions, but do not license centers offering other services or massages,” says the Ministry.
According to the ministry, the institution that issues those licenses is obliged for business monitoring as well, which in this case is through the Ministry of Trade and Industry, MTI.
Lulzim Syla, chief inspector of the Market Inspectorate at MTI, says that this inspection body does not issue permits for the massage businesses.
“In addition to registration in ABRK, these businesses do not receive any other document for exercising business activity from the MTI. Neither is licensing under the competence of MTI,” says Syla, explaining that the Market Inspectorate would be obliged to close the massage parlors only if they conducted proven unregistered business activity.
Physiotherapist Tifeku says that in other European countries, the criteria for opening a local massage parlor are strict, the same as opening a medical clinic.
According to the MTI, the Sanitary Inspectorate of the Municipality of Prishtina and the Ministry of Health Inspectorate are responsible for ensuring that massage parlors meet the required criteria for these businesses to carry out their activities.
Tifeku also raises concerns about the working conditions at these massage centers, the products they use, and the possibility of transmitting disease.
“Licensing should only be granted after all the proper analysis of the work environment have been done, their working tools, what kind of oils they use, what protocol they follow in the treatment of their patients or clients and, above all, perform proper tests for any contagious disease,” says Tifeku.
He has doubts about many of the establishments in Prishtina, believing they are massage parlors only in name, while offering other services behind closed doors.
“But if it is true massage therapy work, then we should support these initiatives,” he says. “But the inspectorate should be very careful in monitoring the activity of these parlors in verifying the work they do.”
Institutions in Kosovo continue to deflect responsibility for the conditions the masseuses are working in, and Egzona is taking responsibility for her own future instead.
“I have scheduled an appointment at the Embassy. I’m eager to go to my aunt in Germany. There I will do whatever I can. If it is necessary I will clean bathrooms, because I cannot stand it here any longer,” she concludes.
This publication has been produced with the assistance of the European Union. The contents of this publication are the sole responsibility of Valon Fana and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of the European Union or BIRN and AJK.
*Egzona’s name has been changed in this article to protect her identity.