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Center for Human Rights - Celebrating 15 Years! Students • Partners • Research

Researching for Massage Parlor Workers’ Rights

MPOP organizers and members presenting at the 2023 UWCHR Spring Symposium. Photo credit/ Nate Gowdy.

October 18, 2023

The below text is featured in the UWCHR 2022-2023 Annual Report.
Written by Chandan Reddy

We completed year one of a two-year research effort, the Strategies for Massage Parlor Workers’ Rights project. Collaborating with the community-based organization Massage Parlor Outreach Project (MPOP), our UWCHR funded research project seeks to understand better the set of overlapping laws, rules, and regulations that negatively impact unlicensed massage work in the Seattle area. With massage workers shaping the investigation, our research team details the legal, policing, and private harassment and violence massage workers experience in the workplace. Diminished occupational safety and increased health risks are consistent features of unlicensed massage.

Workers could not “go remote” during COVID outbreaks, labored in poorly ventilated spaces, and provided services without requirements for prior testing or masking by their clients. Additionally, much of the municipal, county, state, and federal aid that government agencies created to improve workplace safety and health for “essential workers” did not extend to unlicensed massage and its workplaces. Likewise, as highlighted by the brutal murder of Asian immigrant women and massage clients during the Atlanta spa shootings of 2021, the workforce in this sector is predominantly immigrant or migrant, female, non-English-speaking and non-Spanish-speaking, and non-citizen. These social determinations contribute significantly to the vulnerability and precarity that workers in this sector experience.


“By having undergraduate student researchers and Asian immigrant community organizers conduct these oral histories, they deepen the connections and social solidarity between marginalized non-citizen workers, “international” students, and community organizers.”


Yet because we know very little about how race, gender, citizenship, migration, and language ability intersect to produce distinct vulnerabilities for workers in this sector, our research project builds on the deep relationship and trust between our community partner, MPOP, and unlicensed massage workers in the Chinatown/International District, or CID, to center workers’ perspectives on the risks, precarity, and violence that they frequently experience. This year, we conducted more than fifteen in-depth oral histories with massage workers, learning from workers how this low-wage and mostly informal economic sector was created and how it is reproduced in our region. Because of the lack of Mandarin fluency among UW faculty, our research team relied on the language abilities of MPOP organizers and UW undergraduate students to solicit and execute these oral histories. Like other universities, the UW system heavily recruits Mandarin-speaking students from mainland China. Yet undergraduate researchers are rarely valued for their Mandarin-speaking abilities and knowledge, even though they make possible new relationships and opportunities to extend the Center’s research into human rights.

A snippet of these oral histories was presented at the 2023 UWCHR spring symposium and award ceremony in May. Audiences saw how oral histories do more than create data about highly marginalized workers. Instead, they highlight how research subjects like massage workers are knowledge producers. In telling their stories, they connect sites and experiences in China and the United States, describing how “massage work” is reproduced through transnational circuits that national labor law and scholarly research rarely account for. Further, by having undergraduate student researchers and Asian immigrant community organizers conduct these oral histories, they deepen the connections and social solidarity between marginalized non-citizen workers, “international” students, and community organizers. Indeed, one student intern, Lanqing Ren, spoke eloquently at the symposium about how her connections with massage workers through the Strategies for Massage Parlor Workers’ Rights project clarified for her the otherwise obscured social relations in which she found herself as an “international student” within the UW system. In working with massage workers, Ren learned about the importance of her local Tianjin dialect, which the workers spoke, for understanding the demands of intimate labor in these Seattle area workplaces. Likewise, workers described the privileged importance of English, a language none had access to, for improving daily living and working conditions. Ren said workers taught her much about the social, historical, and legal constraints that create the massage sector in Seattle. But she

Rosanna Sze—a core member of MPOP, community based organizer, and lead researcher—speaking at the 2023 Spring Symposium.

learned even more from her collaboration with the workers about how to transform her felt sense of marginality as an “international student”—who was known, if at all, by her UW faculty only as a “deficient” English speaker—into a distinct critical, social and historical agency, one crucially needed in the struggle to better massage workers’ rights and workplace conditions. In these transformative encounters, our student researchers gain new lenses and frameworks for their own histories of migration, educational racialization and gendering. They come to grasp the very different roles played by transnationalized circuits of migrant labor and higher education between the United States and Asia in creating and sustaining highly unequal access to fundamental rights of shelter, safety, and voice in the Seattle region today. And most importantly, they discover distinct conjunctures between these circuits that can create the social forces necessary for just transformation.

Rosanna Sze—a core member of MPOP, community based organizer, and lead researcher—described this transformed awareness as the call for language justice. Speaking at the symposium, she said, “Language justice allows not only for migrant workers to access basic needs such as healthcare or professional needs like licensing, it is also vital for exchanging ideas and experiences with other labor organizers such as the farmworkers’ union Familias Unidas por la Justicia. Language justice allows us to build transnationally and locally across intersections.” As we pursue next year’s research phase, we remain grounded in Sze’s acute framing of the project’s core value to advance language justice in academic research, community organizing, and human rights.

Learn more about the Strategies for Massage Parlor Workers’ Rights project here.