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The people giving you massages and fresh towels in between your bubble teas at Spa World, court records show, might not be getting paid, and some might not be able to leave.
The popular Korean spa in Centreville, Va., is the subject of a police investigation into accusations of nonpayment of wages, slave-like labor conditions, and prostitution, according to court papers first reported by Jeff Goldberg of WJLA-TV. Detectives from Fairfax County’s new human trafficking unit conducted a search of Spa World last Wednesday and seized files and electronic records. Police haven’t yet filed any charges against Spa World owners, though the search warrant lists “abduction” and “willful refusal to pay wages” as potential criminal offenses under investigation.
An affidavit for the search warrant obtained from Fairfax Circuit Court reveals that the investigation began in December 2013, when a Spa World employee contacted police over nonpayment of wages. Since then, the human trafficking unit has interviewed several other alleged victims, who may be owed a total of up to $500,000 in back pay.
One 60-year-old Korean worker told authorities that a Spa World manager recruited him from San Francisco as a body scrubber, a popular exfoliation treatment called ddaemiri, which Spa World offers in its bathing areas. Court records show the man says that upon arriving in Centreville, that manager confiscated his shoes and luggage. He was not allowed to leave the Spa World premises and was forced to sleep on the floor, he told police. He was later moved to an apartment owned by Spa World, the affidavit says, which he shared with other employees and for which he paid rent to his boss, though others cited in court records say some workers live at Spa World in an unfurnished room on the second floor and also pay rent. A coworker and roommate of his, a woman in her 60s, told police a manager confiscated her ID when she arrived from New Jersey to take the job. Several employees say in the affidavit that they were told to put fraudulent information on employment applications and instructed to not talk to law enforcement; during inspections of the premises, some employees were hidden in a “secret room” on the second floor.
Several of the alleged victims told police of not being paid at all for their first month’s work, having 15 percent or more of their subsequent wages withheld (being told the owner was opening another business and would pay them back, but never did), having paychecks bounce, and in the case of one worker, being forced to pay her boss $2,400 in cash to be allowed to quit, payment her boss claimed was for rent, court records show. They also describe being denied lunch breaks or any kind of leave for illness or injury, despite the heavy physical demands of body scrubbing and massage work, which was largely relegated to Chinese nationals (many of them ethnic Koreans), with Korean nationals at the front desk and Latino employees assigned to custodial work, the affidavit says. The body scrubber said that other Spa World employees, who are undocumented immigrants, are not paid for their work at all, describing them as “slaves.” The body scrubber also claims that prostitution occurs on the premises, though no alleged victims of sex trafficking were interviewed in the affidavit.
Spa World owner Sang K. Lee didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment. Fairfax County pollce wouldn’t comment, either, saying the case is still an active investigation.
This isn’t the first controversy to hit Spa World. In 2013, shortly after a Washington City Paper cover story on what claims to be the country’s largest jjimjilbang and its dazzling array of baths, saunas, food, and beauty services, the Fairfax Times reported on a transgender woman who had filed a complaint with the Better Business Bureau after being ejected from the spa. The customer, Riya Suising, said management told her they had received complaints from other customers who had objected to sharing the bathing area with her, apparently due to her more masculine appearance (bathing areas are nude and sex-segregated): “They told me I was not welcome there and to leave because I looked a little different,” she told the Times. The outrage, however, kicked into high gear when Lee, the owner, responded to the BBB complaint by saying, “It is our policy to not accept any kinds of abnormal sexual oriented customers to our facility such as homosexuals, or transgender(s).” Lee added, “Also, for the safety and the comfort of young children at Spa World, we strongly forbid any abnormal sexual behaviors and orientation in our facility. Despite the controversial issue of homosexuality and transgender, it is our policy to not accept them.”
If there was such a policy, this was news to Spa World’s many gay customers, with whom the business had until then been enormously popular (as evinced by the many craigslist personal ads originating there), apparently to the ignorance of Spa World management. Many expressed outrage and called for boycotts. But Spa World quickly backtracked, with a different spokesperson, James Lee, saying there was no ban on gay or trans customers, only a ban on sexual activity (a strange clarification, since Suising wasn’t engaging in sexual activity on the premises), and chalking it up to “a small miscommunication” due to a language barrier.
That dispute didn’t result in any civil or criminal complaints, as discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or transgender identity is perfectly legal in Virginia. But Spa World has faced other legal troubles since day one. When it opened in 2008, Spa World put on a promotion in which it invited senior citizens to enjoy its baths and saunas for free. More than 600 seniors showed up. One of them, an elderly Korean woman, drowned in the bathing area on opening day. Her daughter and husband sued Spa World, alleging the business was responsible for her death since the pool she was in was heated to more than 104 degrees, in violation of Fairfax County water regulation ordinances. The lawsuit was settled in 2010 for $250,000.
Whether or not they ultimately face criminal charges, Spa World faces other allegations similar to the Fairfax County police investigation. Last month, one former Spa World employee who worked as a locker room attendant brought a complaint in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia against the business under the Fair Labor Standards Act for nonpayment of overtime. It’s unclear if that employee is one of the alleged victims in the criminal investigation, as they are not named in court records. Some of the employees interviewed in the criminal case had filed unpaid wage complaints to the U.S. Department of Labor. After they did that, they claim in the police affidavit, Spa World owner Sang Lee withheld all wages to all the employees who complained as punishment.
Illustration of Spa World customer uniform by Carey Jordan