Human Trafficking | Overregulated, but unprotected? Human trafficking governance is not protecting sex workers in the Netherlands

Furthering the discussion on the negative consequences for sex workers[1] of the regulatory conflation of sex work and human trafficking, this post reflects on how regulation focused on identifying cases of human trafficking in the Dutch sex industry has failed to protect sex workers, whose primary concerns remain an unsafe working environment and a lack of job security. Government surveillance of the sex industry does not produce better working conditions – what is needed is increased dialogue for evidence-based policy-making that ensures that immediate needs of sex workers are met without further ado.

Photo: Gio Mikava (Unsplash)

“I don’t want security – I want that window to be changed. It’s unsanitary, it’s dirty,” says Vanessa[2], a transgender sex worker from Ecuador who has been working in the sex industry for 30 years, when I ask her what would make her feel safer at work. After reflecting a bit about what safety means and how we understand it, we start to talk about working conditions. What ‘good conditions’ means in the practice of sex work does not seem to be a priority for the authorities in charge of supervising this industry in the Netherlands, Vanessa and other sex workers tell me. Their objective is mainly to identify cases of human trafficking and illegal forms of sex work.

According to the sex workers I interviewed and observations in both window-based sectors in The Hague that I carried out for my master’s thesis, the working conditions vary from place to place. One afternoon, in the internal windows of one of the Doubletstraat passages, I could feel the dense, heavy, and hot air that many sex workers live with during the summer, as well as the dust that accumulates. Martha, who has been in the industry for 10 years, says: “Of course, there is no air here, here you are like a fish out of water”. For others, bad working conditions are also related to:

  • The lack of access to a clean bathroom with a shower;
  • The lack of access to clean changes of bedding;
  • The lack of a clean and sanitary work environment;
  • The lack of separate spaces for eating and resting;
  • High rental amounts;
  • The precarity of the business;
  • The possibility of being left without a workplace, as the number of licenses issued for sex work are still decreasing; and
  • The (im)possibility of working from home in cities where home-based sex work is illegal.

From bad to worse…

Sex workers’ insecurities were exacerbated by COVID-19-related government measures, which due to the extended lockdown and limitation of face-to-face contact left a big group of sex workers, especially immigrants, without work for longer periods than any other worker, and without financial help. Yet resisting the difficult working conditions is not straightforward. The fear of the consequences of their airing grievances is preventing sex workers from doing so. Vanessa tells me: “I have talked to the others about it, but they tell me not to mess with it because I am going to have problems”. Like her, several sex workers tell me that they would not be taken seriously if they complained about their working conditions, or that they could be retaliated against by the operators, who would no longer rent the site to a ‘troublemaker’. A member of the support organisation Spot 46 says that sex workers can go to the municipality to complain, but nobody really hears them.[3] Thus, the path to changing their precarious working conditions is unclear to window-based sex workers in The Hague.

Focused on legality, not on working conditions

“If you have your papers in order, there is no problem” – Martha (name changed)

Matters of legality seem to take precedence over the wellbeing of sex workers. When I talked to the sex workers I interviewed for my study, inevitably, the discussion turned to the controls and supervision of this industry that are carried out by municipalities. In The Hague, a team called HEIT (The Hague Economic Intervention Team), made up of members of the police and the municipality, oversees the sex industry. Interestingly, this team only focuses on identifying cases of human trafficking and eradicating criminality (City Council 2019:10). When I asked about their perception of government supervision, the first response of all sex workers was that the government was worried about ensuring their legality through document control: by checking their immigration status, work permit, and registration at the Chamber of Commerce. In addition, municipal health service GGD also monitors the industry, but its focus is on public health and therefore is directed at the sexual practices of sex workers, who are considered a risk group (City Council 2019: 10).

Overregulated, but unprotected

From sex workers’ experiences with the controls and from what is stipulated in public policy, it can be argued that government surveillance of the sex industry does not produce better working conditions. Although there are specific and very strict regulations for sex workers, and although multiple institutions are involved in their enforcement, sex workers’ own concerns, and hence their protection as workers, are not a priority. Experiences on the ground reveal that what sex workers need is not more repressive surveillance that frames them as powerless victims of trafficking, but regulation that takes their demands for decent working conditions seriously.


[1] See: Heumann et al. (2017); Heumann et al. (2016); Hubbard et al. (2008); Outshoorn (2012); Pitcher and Wijers (2014) Verhoeven (2017).

City Council (2019) ‘Algemene Plaatselijke Verordening Voor De Gemeente Den Haag (APV) [General Local Regulation for the Municipality of the Hague]’. Local Regulation – Public order and safety, Municipality of The Hague.

Heumann, S., Coumans, SV., Shiboleth, T., Ridder-Wiskerke, M. (2017) ‘The Netherlands: Analysing Shifts and Continuities in the Governing of Sexual Labour’, in Ward, E., Wylie, G. (ed.) Feminism, Prostitution and the State, pp. 46-65. New York: Routledge Studies in Gender and Global Politics.

[2] Pseudonyms were used to protect sex workers’ identities.

[3] Interview, member of Spot 46, 2019.

Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.

About the author

María Inés Cubides Kovacsics is Professional in Development Studies with an ISS major in human rights, gender, and conflict studies. I have a particular interest in gender and sexuality, labour rights, sex workers’ rights, youth, security, and restorative justice. I have worked for identifying and fighting discrimination, exclusion and rights violations suffered by historically marginalized people and communities, alongside LGBTQ communities, imprisoned transgender women, homeless people, sex workers, drug users, street vendors, teenagers and young people with deprivation of liberty sanction.

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