Hardest thing about work in a brothel
COMPLAINTS continue to roll in to a special commissioner set up to monitor illegal activity in Victoria's massage parlours. Licensed brothels have had enough.
The Health Complaints Commissioner, part of the Department of Health and Human Services, revealed after a Freedom of Information request that between February last year and June this year it had received 18 complaints about general health providers offering sexual services.
"In some cases, a provider may have received more than one complaint," a spokeswoman for the commissioner said.
The information comes as no surprise to Milan Stamenkovic, the licensee at The Boardroom brothel at Southbank in the Melbourne CBD.
Mr Stamenkovic has been working in the sex industry in Melbourne and Sydney for almost 20 years. He's seen it all and some things don't change, he says.
He and his staff are fed up with police failing to crack down on sex work at massage parlours and tired of fighting an uphill battle against rising costs and regulations he faces that others don't.
"The legal side of the industry has a lot of hoops to jump through to get a licence," Mr Stamenkovic told news.com.au.
"We have to deal with WorkCover and legal compliance issues and payroll. People think of a brothel a certain way but we're a real business.
"We have to pay for commercial laundry costs and cleaning costs. These operations cost millions of dollars to run."
He said illegal massage parlours work with minimal overhead costs in an unregulated and unsafe industry. He said they pay staff below award wages and let clients do things they cannot do inside a legal brothel, including engaging in unprotected sex.
"For those operating illegally, I estimate a business could make $40,000-$50,000 a week. They open from 10am to 4am and an average service is, say, $160 an hour. If they see roughly 80 clients a day, that's a lot of money. They absolutely kill it. There's a damn good profit to be made out of it."
The fallout is two-fold. First, Mr Stamenkovic says, it means competition is "not level". Second, it means clients think they can get away with more when they enter a licensed brothel. And that's the hardest part of a sex worker's job.
"I've got staff who have been with me for a long time and see the frustrations. They also have to explain to clients why they can't do something that they could do elsewhere and pay less for. A lot of clients don't understand the difference."
Mr Stamenkovic doesn't believe Victoria Police take the issue seriously because "they have a lot of higher profile crimes to deal with".
He said massage parlours operating as brothels are everywhere in the Melbourne CBD, just as they are in Sydney. In Queensland, he says the illegal industry "killed the legal industry" and he doesn't want the same to happen elsewhere.
"In Melbourne, we've already seen a half dozen well-run establishments close because it's too hard to compete."
Tricia Hughes is the CEO of Massage and Myotherapy Australia, the group representing 8600 professionally qualified practitioners across massage, remedial massage and myotherapy.
She, too, feels helpless to make any real inroads against the scourge of illegal activity taking place in faux massage clinics.
"There has been an increase in the number of individuals operating in this space as there is no legislative boundaries that prevent them from doing so," Ms Hughes said.
"It is difficult to monitor as some provide a service that is sought by a client. This makes it difficult for police as they have no victim to report a crime. The main concern for qualified therapists is that these providers' behaviours reflect on the professional industry as a whole."
She said her organisation has "zero tolerance for members practising in this manner" and that "generally these are not health service providers that have been tertiary trained or a member of a professional association".
The fight against illegal brothels is continuing. A mix of local council and police patrols have been somewhat successful, but Mr Stamenkovic says it's "a nightmare to obtain a prosecution against an illegal brothel".
Police tried in Coburg, north of Melbourne, earlier this year after suspected illegal activity at Sabai Massage. Police alleged it was operating as a brothel and had it declared an illegal brothel on May 4, according to the Herald Sun.
A few months later, the allegation was overturned and the massage parlour was allowed to continue trading.
But before the Broadmeadows Magistrates' Court rescinded the motion, the owners were forced to display a notice in the shop's front window declaring it was an illegal brothel - the notice was removed in July. The owners denied any wrongdoing.
For the owners of The Boardroom, it's business as usual in an increasingly competitive industry. On social media, the brothel advertises carefully, well aware it is guided by strict regulations.
News.com.au has approached Victoria Police's Sex Industry Coordination Unit for comment.