Sex worker organisations have struggled with the concept of ‘sex trafficking’ ever since it was mainstreamed into international law with the adoption of the UN Palermo Protocol nearly 20 years ago. Some collectives, such as EMPOWER Thailand, explicitly state that it is an unnecessary concept that was forced onto the global south by the global north. Other organisations were found to share EMPOWER’s position in a recent report from the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women. For these groups trafficking is, according to the report, “an issue that was introduced from outside the industry itself, propelled by a moralistic agenda, that organisations have felt obliged to understand, in order to counter the harmful effects of conceptually conflating trafficking and sex work.” Criticism of data collection methods that aim to assess the volume of trafficking for sexual exploitation and the often singular focus on trafficking in the sex industry is also widely shared by sex workers all around the world.
Nevertheless, it would be challenging to find a single sex worker organisation that does not acknowledge that exploitation and forced labour are common in the sex industry. That these phenomena exist and that they are dangerous are not disputed. Many groups have thus, often on shoestring budgets, instituted creative strategies to combat exploitative conditions and abuse in their communities. For others in the anti-trafficking field they should be natural allies. Yet they are often proactively prevented from engaging in anti-trafficking events and in discussions that are highly relevant to their communities.
Criminalising the purchase of sexual services does not reduce the demand that drives trafficking.
In 2014, the Honeyball resolution of the European Parliament and the Council of Europe Bota resolution were formulated without the input of national and international sex worker rights organisations and that of their allies in the HIV, anti-trafficking, and LGBT rights fields. These resolutions thus erroneously claim that prostitution is a form of slavery incompatible with human dignity that feeds the trafficking of vulnerable women and under-age females. They recommended, based on this fault, the introduction of the Swedish model that criminalises the buyers of sexual services. Since then, the unproven correlation between the legalised nature of the sex industry and the number of identified trafficking victims have surfaced in diverse EU and Europol reports.
If they had been asked, sex workers and their associations would have offered insight into why criminalising the purchase of sexual services and lowering the incomes of sex workers does not reduce the demand that drives trafficking. They would have emphasised that unjust treatment of workers is prevalent in most labour markets, and thus they would have asked why criminalisation is only ever seen as a solution in the case of sex work.
They were not asked. Sex workers’ own analysis of the issues affecting them is not heard at policy-making levels because sex worker organisations are routinely discredited and dismissed. They are given no access to formulate their views in these arenas. For example, not one sex worker organisation has been allowed into the European Union Civil Society Platform against Trafficking in Human Beings, which contains over 100 participants, despite many groups’ efforts to join.
These exclusionary mechanisms also manifest in funding. A review of 321 anti-trafficking projects financed by the European Commission between 2004 and 2015 shows that not a single project had a sex worker-led organisation as a project lead. This is unfortunate but not surprising. Sex worker groups only rarely receive funding from their own national, provincial and municipal governments. Consequently they do not have sufficient capacity to reach as high as commission-level funding.
Supporting sex workers to stay safe at work gives us many more points of entry than abolition alone.
What would sex workers demand if their voices were included in anti-trafficking discussions? Our current ‘RnR: Rights not Rescue’ project at the International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe, a group which has brought migrant sex workers together for many years, seeks to reformulate and refine today’s ‘end demand’ measures in a more rights-based direction. Along with our partner organisations in 10 European countries, the primary goal of RnR is to identify and combat exploitative labour practices within the sex work sector.
Shifting the mode of intervention away from blanket criminalisation and toward supporting sex workers to stay safe while they work gives us many more points of entry than abolition alone. According to a community report assessing the views of sex workers on exploitative practices, the main challenges faced by workers selling sex is the casual character of their labour arrangements. The vast majority of sex workers in Europe are engaged in insecure, irregular and flexible labour. Other involved parties, meanwhile, seek to transfer risks and responsibilities onto sex workers in order to maximise their profit.
This results in work engagements that are typically temporary, poorly paid and very rarely tied to protections associated with regular employment. Consequently, financial and social benefits are out of reach for most sex workers. Excessive or constantly changing working hours, pressure to work while ill, and providing services to more clients than they feel comfortable with during one shift are amongst the most common exploitative and hazardous workplace practices in the sex industry.
‘End demand’ measures do little to change these conditions and indirectly punish sex workers by decreasing their incomes or exacerbating their vulnerability to discrimination and violence. They should be more focused, and target demand for those services or working conditions that fall outside safe and fair work standards, such as unprotected sex.
To get this right will require the input of sex workers, and we call on international bodies, the organs of the European Union, and national governments to treat workers as anti-trafficking experts in their own right. We also call on these bodies to make funding available to sex worker organisations so they can strengthen their own local responses to exploitation. The status quo cannot continue, as today’s ‘solutions’ are too often life-threatening for migrant and domestic sex workers. Sex workers have an in-depth knowledge of the sex industry and are the only ones to have experienced life as a sex worker. They should be the driving force behind anti-trafficking policies, not the collateral damage of measures that aim to save them.
This article has been developed by the International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe (ICRSE) as part of its 'RnR- Rights not Rescue’ project, aiming to empower migrant sex workers in tackling exploitation and trafficking in the sex industry. The programme, funded by OAK Foundation, brings together sex workers and allies from sex workers' rights organisations in 10 European countries for exchange, national and European advocacy and knowledge generation. For more details about the project, check the ICRSE website www.sexworkeurope.org