Beyond Trafficking and Slavery: Interview

How we got here: the story of the Palermo protocol on trafficking

'Human trafficking' didn't have to mean what it now does. This is the story of how it got its definition, as told by someone who was in the room when it happened

Marjan Wijers
11 February 2021
What is exploitation?
Artwork by Carys Boughton. All rights reserved.

Marjan Wijers, a long-time consultant and researcher on human trafficking, was in the room when the Palermo protocol on human trafficking was negotiated 20 years ago. We caught up with Marjan as part of our anniversary special on the protocol to learn how the anti-trafficking field changed with Palermo, how those negotiations played out, and where we might go from here. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Joel Quirk (BTS): The Palermo protocol was finalised over 20 years ago, and for many people working in the fields of trafficking and labour exploitation today it has simply always been there. But that’s not actually the case. What was the field like before there was a Palermo protocol?

Marjan Wijers: In the 1980s feminist groups with a background in development cooperation started working on trafficking in the Netherlands. They actually got into it because they were looking at sex tourism. Through that work and their contacts with Asian women’s organisations they came to realise there was a second flow of women the other way around, coming into the Netherlands and other European countries to do sex work but also as domestic workers and mail-order brides. That’s how the Foundation against Trafficking in Women (STV) was founded in 1987.

We mainly worked with migrant women in the sex industry. Most of them were undocumented. Some originally planned to do a different sort of work, like domestic work or modelling, and ended up in the sex industry. Others came with the intention of doing sex work and ended up in abusive and forced working conditions. From the start, for us, it was not about innocent women forced into prostitution. It was about addressing exploitation and abuse of migrant women in the sex industry regardless of whether they had been forced into it or not. In fact several of our clients wanted to continue to do sex work, but now for themselves.

If memory serves, at that time only the Netherlands and Germany had groups working on the issue of migrant sex workers and trafficking. And, at that time, really nobody cared. We were talking about migrants. We were talking about foreign women, primarily from southeast Asia and Latin America, and women of colour. And we were talking about prostitutes. We didn't yet use the term sex worker, that came later.

Our clients didn't have rights, as women, as migrants and as prostitutes. They had fewer rights and opportunities than men at home. And they didn't have rights here in Western Europe because most of them were undocumented and, above all, they had no rights because they were whores. I explicitly use the word ‘whores’ as it really didn't matter whether they made their own decision to do sex work or whether they had been forced into it. ‘Once a whore always a whore, who do you think will care?’ – that’s what their exploiters told them.

And that is precisely what happened. Even if they went to the police, cases weren't taken seriously. They were just deported right back to the situation they had tried to escape from, and the cases weren’t prosecuted. The first actions we undertook together with women who would now qualify as ‘victims of trafficking’ pushed for things like temporary residence permits, the ability to press charges, and for cases to be actively investigated and prosecuted. I think it was more or less the same in Germany.

If we had known the history and the inherent flaws of the concept of trafficking back then, we never would have used it.

Interest in trafficking rose quickly with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. There were a number of reasons for that. I do not want to be cynical, but I am convinced that one was that the victims changed from women of colour to white women, Eastern European women. So from ‘them’ to ‘us’. The other, I think, was that we didn't know how fast we could rebuild the wall. Once the wall fell everybody could travel freely again. That was nice, but, of course, never the intention. And then there was the fear that we would be flooded not only by Eastern European migrants but also by the Russian mafia. Trafficking provided the perfect justification for an anti-migration agenda in the name of combating trafficking, literally under the banner of ‘if they can’t come, they cannot become victims either’. A lot of trafficking money was spent on rebuilding the Polish borders, for instance.

These factors helped push trafficking on the political agenda. It wasn’t so much that people became more concerned about the rights of sex workers or migrants, or about protecting sex workers from abuse. It was mostly that the argument of trafficking perfectly served a number of state interests, which became urgent after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

At the same time, there was the second feminist movement. That brought attention to sexual violence and the right of women to decide over their own bodies. And since the 1970s sex workers had started to organise – that was also a movement that came up. So on the one hand we had the sex workers’ rights movement claiming the right to choose the work you want to do and not be punished or criminalised for it, and on the other hand the anti-trafficking movement claiming the right to not be forced to do work you do not want to do. Both claims are about human rights, the freedom to choose your own profession and the right to be protected from forced labour, and both should be respected. That’s how we looked at it – in our view pro-rights and anti-violence were two sides of the same coin. So from our start we worked together with the Red Thread, the Dutch prostitutes rights organisation.

Preceding all of this was the question of what to call these sorts of abuses. Let me say it like this: if we had known the history and the inherent flaws of the concept of trafficking back then, we never would have used it. What we should have done was talk about forced labour, including forced sexual services, slavery-like practices and servitude. We should have used concepts that describe the living and working conditions in which people find themselves. These are concepts that are defined in international human rights law, and they're kind of neutral. But at that time we weren't aware of all that, so we ended up falling back on the 19th-century Victorian concept of trafficking with its focus on the purity and victimhood of women and the protection of national borders. In doing so, we unwittingly imported a highly biased concept, dividing women into innocent victims in need of rescue and guilty ones who can be abused with impunity, but also with racist and nationalistic overtones.

Despite efforts to counter these flaws, this inheritance continues to define the debate on trafficking today, as exemplified by the distinction the UN Trafficking Protocol makes between so-called ‘sexual exploitation’ and ‘labour exploitation’ and its focus on recruitment and movement rather than working conditions. Historically, trafficking has been used to control women’s sexuality and mobility and to justify oppressive measures against sex workers and migrants, rather than protecting their human rights. Already in the 1990s it had become clear that this was what was happening. So when we started the negotiations on the trafficking protocol, we were very much aware of the problems of the concept. And we tried to address them.

Joel: Did you enter into those negotiations believing that they were an opportunity, or did you mainly approach them with trepidation and anxiety? Was it already clear what the fault lines would be, or did those surprise you?

Marjan: There had already been a lot of discussion around the definition of trafficking by the time it reached the top of the international agenda. Is trafficking only about women and children? Does trafficking only takes place across borders or also happen within borders? Is trafficking only about forcing women into prostitution or is it also about abusive recruitment practices for domestic work and other kinds of labour? Is it only about recruitment or also about abusive and slavery-like working conditions? Pretty much all the questions and issues that played a role in the negotiations on the trafficking protocol were already points of contention in the larger political debate.

So there was a tremendous amount of confusion about what the concept was. And even if people agreed that the core of trafficking was coercion or force, there wasn't consensus about what ‘force’ referred to, especially in relation to sex work. Did it refer to both abusive conditions of recruitment and work? Or did it refer solely to the way a woman came to be a prostitute, as a result of her own decision or forced by others (thus excluding women who consciously decided to work in the sex industry but who were subject to force and abuse in the course of their work)? And then some viewed prostitution itself as a violation of human rights akin to slavery. In this view no woman is able to voluntarily consent to sex work and any distinction made on the basis of consent or the will of the woman is meaningless.

We knew all these discussions were taking place, so we knew the dangers and we knew how much the concept was mixed up with the anti-prostitution and anti-migration agendas. We also knew it was sexist in the way that it linked the right of women to be protected against violence with their sexual innocence or purity. So we knew exactly what was wrong. Not everybody did perhaps, but the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women (GAATW) – which was founded by Thai women groups and STV over the course of the 1990s – certainly did. A number of human rights organisations did, and sex worker organisations of course were very conscious of it from the very beginning.

Joel: Could the Palermo protocol have turned out differently? Or did it seem more or less fixed from the beginning, and what you got was roughly what you expected?

Marjan: We were not that optimistic. We knew what the problems were, and we knew how the concept was used against sex workers and immigrants. So we were well prepared in that sense. We had a number of aims and we organised across movements. We brought anti-trafficking, human rights and sex workers’ rights organisations and activists together, led by the International Human Rights Law Group and GAATW. I took part on behalf of GAATW and the Dutch Foundation Against Trafficking in Women where I worked at the time. The composition of this alliance was really important in that it was the first time that these three movements worked together in a joint lobby. Especially the combination of anti-trafficking and pro-sex workers’ rights groups and activists was radical, as it bridged the historical gap between the two movements caused by the persistent conflation of trafficking and sex work.

For the sex workers’ movement it was really a difficult position because they were clearly against the whole concept of trafficking. They had already suffered a lot from it. At the same time, we all knew that it was important to try to do as much damage control as possible. So the negotiations on the protocol were not like, ‘Oh, this is a beautiful chance.’ They were like, we already know the damage and we know that it can become even worse, so what can we do to control the damage and try to make the best of it? We prepared our documents together, went to the negotiations together, and lobbied together.

Like the states, NGOs were deeply divided on how trafficking should be defined – that is, what practices should be combated. While we made a clear distinction between trafficking and sex work and held that conditions of forced labour in all industries should be addressed, the other NGO block, led by the US-based Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW), regarded all sex work as trafficking and wanted the protocol to combat prostitution as such.

By the time of the negotiations on the protocol, CATW had been around for a while and they had gained a lot of influence. I attended one of their conferences in New York at the end of the 1980s. At that point they hadn't a clue about trafficking or the position and experiences of migrant women. They were mainly focused on violence against white women and pornography. I remember Andrea Dworkin, like a priestess sweeping a whole hall of women into hysterics about a woman being forced by her employer to look at Deep Throat, a famous porno film at that time. But during the 1990s they got a lot of money from conservative governments and became a rich, important, influential anti-prostitution lobby with chapters in a number of Asian countries.

If I remember correctly, they were not there for the first session of negotiations on the protocol, but from the second session onwards they were there. And from that time on, there were two opposed NGO-lobbying blocks. Our block, operating under the name of Human Rights Caucus, advocated a broad and comprehensive definition of trafficking with coercion as the core element. We wanted to include men as well as women and children, to go beyond prostitution and include all sectors of work in which people could end up under slavery and forced labour-like conditions, and to include both cross-border and internal trafficking. We wanted to go broad as we thought this might neutralise the problematic parts of the traditional concept of trafficking.

The other block, which next to CATW included among others the European Women’s Lobby and the French International Abolitionist Federation, wanted a protocol that defined all prostitution as trafficking, and that only applied to women and children. Significantly, they operated under the name of International Human Rights Network, kind of copying our name and adding to the confusion about who was who. Those were the two opposing positions, and the final definition is a clear compromise between those two positions. On the one hand it makes a clear distinction between sex work and trafficking. It covers women, men, and children, and includes all labour sectors rather than just the sex industry. On the other hand, “exploitation of prostitution and sexual exploitation” is singled out as separate and different from what came to be called ‘labour exploitation’ – that is forced labour, slavery-like practices and servitude in other industries. And we've seen the harmful effects of it.

What is exploitation? | Artwork by Carys Boughton. All rights reserved.

Joel: What you’ve said so far reflects the commonly told story about the Palermo negotiations, which is essentially an argument between two opposing coalitions of NGOs and civil society voices. And I understand that that was a key flash point. But it has always struck me that this portrayal misses out on the role of states. Governments always have the final say in these kinds of negotiations – civil society doesn't get to write its own international law. Could you say more about the governmental positions during the negotiations?

Marjan: The fight between NGOs was more or less also reflected in the position of governments. It was a long time ago, but from what I remember, I think there were three issues that divided the states – and not always along the same lines. One was the moral issue of prostitution and the idea that all prostitution is trafficking. States started out with different positions on prostitution, but I think they found it relatively easy to say, ‘Even if we do not agree about prostitution, we do agree about coercion, so let's limit this treaty to situations of abuse and coercion and not prostitution as such.’ That more or less solved the moral question, though the moral issue comes back in other articles, for example the one on addressing demand.

Then I think there was a difference regarding borders. Rich and poor countries were more opposed when it came to migration. For the rich countries, especially, it was really important to include articles in the protocol about protecting borders, while for the poor countries the remittances labour migrants sent home formed an important part of their national income. The third point was rights of victims. Sending countries were much more inclined to include victim protection provisions, while receiving countries were not inclined to do that at all.

That’s also reflected in the protocol. There are a number of provisions on protections for victims, but they are not obligatory. Victim protection is up to the discretion of the states, whereas all the law enforcement provisions are mandatory. And there, I think, the NGO lobby really failed. Our faction felt that even if we didn't agree with the others on prostitution, we should be able to agree on the need for victim protection provisions. But the other side didn’t want to cooperate.

Joel: Why not?

Marjan: Because they didn't want to work with us, in part because of how polarised we all were and in part because – and this is probably nasty to say – it wasn't in their interest. We were the ones working with victims. We were the ones who wanted victim protections. They had a totally different, ideologically driven, agenda. They wanted to combat prostitution. And what the actual impact of that was on women, on sex workers, on victims – I don’t think they really cared.

Joel: The Palermo protocol is what gives us the internationally agreed definition of trafficking. At the heart of it is this idea that human trafficking is for the purpose of exploitation – that is the hinge of the whole treaty. Yet exploitation is not defined – there’s just a non-exhaustive list of examples. Why doesn’t the protocol at any point actually say what exploitation is?

Marjan: They couldn't agree upon it.

Joel: They couldn't agree on it because people wanted very different versions, or couldn't agree on it because exploitation is just really hard to define?

Marjan: What I remember is that there were a number of states and international experts, like the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights, the Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, the International Labour Organisation, and ourselves who said don't use the word exploitation. Stick to forced labour, servitude, slavery-like practices, etc., which are accepted and defined concepts in international human rights law. They also advocated to delete the word ‘sexual exploitation’ because it is undefined, controversial, and unnecessary. The Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, for example, noted that the term ‘sexual exploitation’ could be interpreted in very different ways, depending on whether you believed that prostitution constituted ‘sexual exploitation’ per se, or whether it referred to situations of forced labour, servitude or slavery-like practices, which could happen in the sex industry but also in domestic labour or servile marriages.

And then there was the other group of states, which included the US, who wanted to have exploitation of prostitution and sexual exploitation in the protocol independent of the use of deception, force or coercion. They really wanted to have that in the protocol. I remember us writing a letter to Madeleine Albright, the US secretary of state at that time, to try to discuss the US position with her. It was signed by a whole bunch of experts from different organisations in the US and elsewhere, and it argued that there was consensus on limiting the protocol to forced situations and warned that expanding it to include voluntary prostitution would mean that several countries would refuse to sign it.

The compromise was to put both of them in. The phrase ‘for the purpose of exploitation’ was kind of the general term, and then under that heading you could put both exploitation of prostitution and forced labour, etc. The terms ‘exploitation of the prostitution of others’ and ‘sexual exploitation’ were intentionally left undefined, so states could decide for themselves how they wanted to address prostitution in their domestic laws. It was a typical political compromise where both parties more or less got what they wanted.

Joel: You mentioned the harmful effects of singling out sexual exploitation as different from forced labour, slavery-like practices and servitude. What do you mean by that?

Marjan: The inclusion of exploitation of prostitution as a separate purpose from forced labour, etc. reinforced the historical obsession with prostitution and fed into the old conflation of trafficking and sex work and the preoccupation with the purity of women. It not only implies that sex work cannot be labour, but it also falsely suggests that forced labour cannot exist in the sex industry, consequently depriving sex workers of protection against the practice. The ILO had always considered forced prostitution as a form of forced labour, so separating it really is a step backwards.

Forced labour and slavery-like practices are not defined by the type of the work but by the forced and unfree working conditions. According to the definition in the protocol this should also apply to trafficking. Nobody would ever argue that a domestic worker cannot be a victim of trafficking simply because she knew she would do domestic work or had worked as a domestic worker before. But when it comes to sex work you see that in practice many states restrict force to refer only to forcing somebody into prostitution and not to forced working conditions.

The effect is that in many cases, instead of the offender standing trial, it is the victim who has to prove her ‘innocence’, thus shifting the focus from the acts of the trafficker to the morality of the victim. This distinction between ‘good’ women who deserve protection and ‘bad’ women who forfeited their right to protection against abuse is one of the major obstacles to combating trafficking. It not only implies that sex workers can be abused with impunity, but also that the right of women to be protected against violence and abuse is determined by their sexual purity or ‘honour’. This is not only harmful for sex workers, but for all women.

This sex work exceptionalism also paved the way to completely opposite strategies. Where everybody agrees that it's important to strengthen rights and support unionisation, organisation, etc. in order to combat forced labour or abusive labour conditions, the exact opposite strategies are promoted when it comes to combating trafficking in the sex industry. There further criminalisation is advocated, which adds to the stigma and leaves sex workers with less instead of more rights. This is reinforced by the article in the protocol that calls on states to “discourage the demand that fosters all forms of exploitation”. This of course is interpreted as solely applying to sex work and laid the foundation for the so-called ‘end demand’ campaigns that call for the criminalisation of clients of sex workers.

People tend to think the protocol is a human rights treaty, but very obviously it is not.

The separation of sexual exploitation from the other purposes also made it crucial to include the coercive means in the protocol. Without that it would have become a treaty against prostitution, because it would have simply been recruitment, transport, etc., for the purpose of exploitation of prostitution, independent of the use of force or coercion. If the purpose would have only been forced labour, slavery, etc., you wouldn’t have needed the coercive or deceptive means as these are inherently coercive. What we’ve seen in practice is that a number of countries, like Mexico, have deleted the means. And if you delete the means you turn the anti-trafficking protocol into an anti-prostitution protocol.

A fourth problem is the focus on movement. It takes away attention from the forced labour and slavery-like outcomes which constitute the actual human rights violations. This not only provides states with a justification to pursue a border control agenda under the guise of combating trafficking, but it also creates two categories of victims: those who arrive in a forced labour or slavery-like situation through trafficking and those who get there though other ways. The first group is entitled to support, even if it is pretty minimal, while the second is excluded from any rights because they did not get there through trafficking. From a human rights point of view that is of course unacceptable. In fact, it mirrors the first treaties on trafficking around 1900 which addressed the cross-border recruitment of women for what was then called immoral purposes, but explicitly left aside coercive conditions inside the brothels. That was considered to be a question of internal legislation.

Joel: Did you come out of the negotiations feeling happy or feeling worried?

Marjan: I think a bit of both. We were happy that it covered all people rather than just women and children. We were happy that it covered all sectors. We were happy that, at least in the definition and explanation of the protocol, it was clear that coercion was a core element of trafficking. That had been a big fight. So we were happy that it was clear that coercion, deceit, or force must be present for something to be trafficking.

At the same time, we were very concerned about the distinction that was made between exploitation of prostitution and the other purposes of forced labour, etc. And our concerns have proven to be completely justified. We were also extremely disappointed about the lack of human rights protections for trafficked persons. People tend to think the protocol is a human rights treaty, but very obviously it is not. It is part of a treaty on organised crime, it is a law enforcement instrument.

Joel: It seems people have done a lot of work to expand the definition of trafficking when it comes to sex work, but they’ve been reluctant to think more broadly in other areas. They’ve baulked at applying it to migrant workers, or workers in global supply chains, for example. Do you agree with that? Do people try and apply trafficking broadly when it comes to sex work, and then narrowly when it comes to migrant workers because it's otherwise just too politically inconvenient?

Marjan: Well, exploitation and the availability of cheap and exploitable labour is in fact the core of the capitalist system. If we would really want to address exploitation in other industries, it would touch our own interests in cheap services and products. We would have to pay more for our mobile phones, for our vegetables, for having our houses and offices cleaned, etc. It is therefore much more attractive to focus on sex work, which fits a moral rather than an economic agenda and is easy to separate from our daily lives and interests.

Addressing exploitation would require a social justice agenda. It would require improving the economic, social and legal position of migrants for example. Focusing on prostitution, on the contrary, makes it possible to reduce the issue to a crime and punishment framework. It stops short of trying to address the economic system. And, of course, rescuing innocent maidens is much more sexy. All this once again exposes how flawed the whole concept is. We spend millions to combat trafficking while the forced labour treaties, which already stem from the 1930s and 1950s, have never gotten such attention. That hasn’t happened by accident.

Joel: Would you say the problem lies more in the protocol or what governments do with the protocol?

Marjan: You can't separate them. The protocol was a political compromise between two opposing views and interests. There was a reason for making that compromise, and those reasons are also reflected in the way it is applied. So I don't think you can really make that distinction. A lot of states are dependent on migrant labour, and it would be against their interests to address abusive conditions of migrant and other low paid workers. So they're not very prone to do that. Besides, it’s much easier to focus on prostitution, borders, and the morality of women. That is a much better fit with state interests than addressing the abusive labour conditions experienced by migrant and other low-paid groups of workers keeping your economy going. So why should you?

Joel: Have you got more optimistic or pessimistic in the time that's passed regarding the value of human trafficking as a way of addressing questions of exploitation?

Marjan: I think what we feared has happened. It has done very little to address actual human rights violations or the causes of the exploitation of people under forced labour or slavery-like conditions. Nor did it do much for victim rights because, of course, abuses do exist. Nobody denies that there are serious human rights abuses of people, but the protocol does little to address them. On the contrary, it backs measures that make the abuses worse. Repressive measures always have a negative impact on the most vulnerable groups. The more you criminalise or stigmatise groups, the more vulnerable you make them for abuse and the more you close off their access to justice.

It's possible that the Palermo protocol did a little bit for a very small category of victims, but it did harm to much bigger groups.

I would say the situation has worsened for quite a lot of groups. That’s certainly true for sex workers, but also for many migrants. The Palermo protocol provided states with an instrument to justify repressive measures that put people in more vulnerable positions. And at the same time, it didn't do much to improve the situation for victims of abuse. In most states you have to cooperate with the prosecution in order to benefit as a victim, which means that you have to put yourself and your family at more risk. And if you’re a migrant you’ll likely be deported once you’re no longer useful as a witness. We also know that criminal law is not made for victims. Criminal law is an issue between states and perpetrators. Victims are basically nothing more than a fingerprint, something you put in a drawer and take out if you need evidence. That's it. It's possible that the Palermo protocol did a little bit for a small category of victims, but it didn’t make things better for the majority of them, and it did harm to much bigger groups.

During the negotiations we advocated that trafficking should cover both abusive conditions of recruitment and abusive conditions of work. The protocol does not do this. Trafficking under the protocol is limited to the recruitment process, the way people arrive in exploitative situations. This means that we have millions of people in conditions of forced labour all over the world who didn't arrive there through trafficking, and because they didn’t get there through trafficking they are completely rightless. It's like combatting the slave trade but not slavery. If you were born a slave because your parents were slaves that’s fine, just as long as you didn’t get there through the slave trade. We tried to convey the need to combat the exploitation itself, but that didn’t happen.

Joel: So where do we go from here? Some people suggest that there should be a follow-up convention that would affirm and extend the Palermo protocol. Others argue that trafficking has created so many problems that it’s best to just scrap it and try something else. What’s your view? Is it worth staying in the anti-trafficking tent and seeking to reform from within? Or is it better to pick a different battlefield and fight using a different set of concepts?

Marjan: We tried those strategies. We tried to get rid of the whole concept of trafficking and we weren’t successful. Once you’ve opened up Pandora’s box, you know, it’s out of your control. It's there to stay. There are too many other interests attached to the concept of trafficking to get rid of it. And those aren’t the interests of the people who are affected.

We also tried damage control. I still flatter myself with the idea that at least we did some damage control in the negotiations. It could have been worse, but that doesn't make it good. And I must say that after 30 years of damage control alone, I'm tired, and it's not only me. Doing damage control is not the most inspiring thing to do in life.

My conclusion is that it is much better to work on rights. I see two ways forward. One is to work on sex workers’ rights, migrants’ rights, etc. It's difficult and we live in repressive times. We are in a conservative, repressive period of history. It's not only sex work – it's sexual and reproductive rights in general. It's not only migrant workers – it's migrants, refugees, etc. All human rights are under pressure. But at least they used to be seen as something to strive for. Now the necessity of human rights as a whole is up for debate.

Joel: I talk to lots of different campaigners, and I know people who work on reparations for transatlantic enslavement, and they never get invited into the halls of power. They're on the outside making claims that governments don't like. And I contrast that with people who work on anti-trafficking, who get invited to cabinets and boardrooms, who are given a platform, who have influence and access to centres of power. I’ve been wondering for a while now how addictive that access is. Changing the conversation means giving up that access, including access to funding, and that makes it hard to say, ‘This anti-trafficking stuff isn't working. I need to go work on sex worker rights, migrant rights, unionising workers, and all these types of things.’ How easy do you think it really is for people who work on anti-trafficking to start working on other things, given that the political profile of those other things is just far less hospitable to activism?

Marjan: It’s absolutely true. And also within the anti-trafficking movement there is a big divide. There's the progressive part to which I belong, which is rights-based, and to which the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women belongs. And there is the conservative anti-trafficking movement, which is all too happy to sleep in one bed with the state and with power.

If you want to get money, do trafficking. Don't choose migrants’ rights or sex workers’ rights. That's a stupid choice if you want money and influence. And of course money is addictive. When we started at the end of the 1980s nobody was interested. Once it became a big issue, I don't know how many hundreds of organisations jumped on the bandwagon.

I think that in the end, no matter how difficult it is to focus on rights rather than repression, it is the best thing we can do. I'm happy that the International Labour Organization has now picked up the issue. I think that if we want to address abuses, or if we want to address the exploitation of people in forced labour and slavery-like conditions, the ILO is a better way to go.

I would continue to try to work together with the ILO. I would put pressure on them to also include the sex industry. It took years before they included domestic workers, but they did in the end. And it's not that the world changes when an international treaty is concluded. Certainly not for domestic workers, but it is a step. It's a small step, but at least a step in the direction of rights instead of repression. So I think it would be important for the ILO to also include the sex industry as an area of concern over labour standards.

If you can pull the ILO, it also means that you shift to much more neutral concepts. We should be aware of how tainted and flawed concepts can be, and how far reaching the influence of a concept is. Like I said in the beginning, if we had been aware of the history of trafficking and of what it meant to import that concept, we would not have done it. You really have to be very much aware of the language you use, the concepts you import, and try to look for neutral language.

Trafficking is not going away, and we won't escape the need for damage control. We have to continue to do that. But at the same time, as a movement, it's really important to connect to other rights-based movements. The migrants’ rights movement, the sex workers’ rights movement, and the human rights movement need to come together and develop their own, rights-based agenda.

This series has been financially supported by Humanity United.

Get BTS emails A monthly round-up of what's happening on the site and in the community. Sign up here


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData