Human Trafficking | How anti-trafficking governance is getting it wrong: consequences of the differential treatment of migrant worker groups in the Netherlands

In many countries, including the Netherlands, being an immigrant – or being perceived as one – is a key mechanism used to normalise job precarity and poorly paid work. From this perspective, in theory, the rising attention to exploitative conditions that has paralleled anti-trafficking interventions is promising for migrant workers. Yet, using the case of the Netherlands as an example, this post highlights that, in practice, the exploitation of some workers seems to worry policy-makers more than others. The selective concern for migrant workers’ exploitation has paradoxical consequences, writes Karin Astrid Siegmann.

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In a recent case of human trafficking of Slovak workers on a Dutch strawberry farm, the Netherlands Supreme Court identified “systematic substantial underpayment and provision of poor, far too expensive housing” as indicators of exploitation. While hardly used in the International Labour Organisation’s labour rights framework, the term ‘exploitation’ is central to the 2000 UN Anti-Trafficking Protocol – shorthand for the UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children. The Protocol does not define exploitation, but outlines forms that it can take, such as the “exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs”. By 2021, with 178 ratifications, most countries of the world are party to the Protocol.

Having worked with migrant workers in the Netherlands for a couple of years now, I can’t get my head around how Dutch policy discourses on exploitation differentiate between occupational groups. Take migrant workers employed in the Dutch agricultural sector, like the Slovak migrants mentioned above. Agriculture employs the biggest share of the approximately 370,000 migrants from Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) working in the Netherlands. Significantly contributing to the country’s Euro 49 billion value added produced in the agri-food industry, they make this small country the largest agricultural producer in EU and the second largest agricultural exporter globally.

These successes are lauded publicly, yet the migrant workers contributing to these successes are commonly invisibilised. While court cases countering the exploitation of farm workers are exceptional, their insecurity, poverty, and dependency are the rule. Even the Dutch Labour Inspectorate speaks of a large grey area of unfair labour practices affecting agricultural workers that are de jure legal. Mostly being workers deployed through employment agencies, they have little say about the number of hours they will work or the resulting earnings – and they can easily lose their job from one day to the next. Given that the employment agency often provides them with housing, too, dismissal simultaneously means losing accommodation.

Then there are migrant sex workers. Other than in many other countries, sex work is a legal profession in the Netherlands. A closer look reveals that this might not be much more than a ‘legal façade’: instead of being treated as work like any other, sex work is handled as a security risk, reflected in the fact that the sector is regulated by the Ministry of Justice and Security instead of the Ministry of Social Affairs and Welfare. A small sector anyway, in which an estimated 4,000 to 4,500 sex workers provide direct forms of sex work on a daily basis, the number of licenses for legal workspaces for sex work have halved since 2000. Based on a split image in which the Dutch sex workers are cast as modern, emancipated on the one hand, and migrant sex workers depicted as exploited and trafficked on the other, the sex industry is the only sector in the Netherlands that does not allow non-EU foreigners to work legally in the sector.

Yet despite their small number, migrant sex workers figure prominently in discourses around anti-trafficking governance in the Netherlands. This becomes evident in the proposed law on the regulation of sex work (WRS), which lists the fight against human trafficking as one of the drivers of the law amendment and argues that the sex industry is more prone to trafficking than other sectors. It is ironic here that for many years, the incidence of forced labour in other sectors, such as horticulture, was actually not included in official reports on human trafficking.

Anti-trafficking interventions heighten rather than reduce risk of exploitation

The selective concern for migrant workers’ exploitation has paradoxical consequences. The skewed framing of migrant sex workers’ realities justifies repressive policies that heighten the risk of sex workers’ exploitation. The conflation of sex work with human trafficking that has been exacerbated since the ratification of the Anti-Trafficking Protocol affects all sex workers. It has been used to justify increasingly repressive regulation of this legal profession, for example through the progressive closure of streetwalker zones across the Netherlands and the criminalisation of the clients of unlicensed workers. Undermining the stated objective of such regulation, the focus on human trafficking pushes migrant sex workers further into informality with greater vulnerability as a consequence.

The underpayment, insecurity, and dependence of a much larger group of migrant workers in the agricultural sector, in contrast, commonly remains out of view in media and policy discourses. This supports the normalisation of their ‘regulated precarity’: they pay for economic success of Dutch agriculture. In this way, both the misrepresentation of migrant sex workers and the invisibilisation of migrant farmworkers’ realities heighten the risk of exploitation that they face.

These examples demonstrate that anti-trafficking governance has not been an effective tool to address migrant workers’ exploitation. Both groups are losing instead of gaining what’s sorely needed – job security, better working conditions, and fair treatment. A more promising road towards fair labour practices for migrant workers involves a shift from a criminal law to a labour approach to human trafficking, including migrant sex work, as María Inés Cubides Kovacsics argued in her recent post in this series. This implies a regulatory environment that considers both migrant workers in agriculture and the sex industry citizens rather than passive production factors or victims – and effectively guarantees living wages and inclusive social protection based on that recognition.

This post is based on the author’s presentation on ‘Paradoxes of Migrants’ Exploitation in the Netherlands’ during an ISS expert meeting with representatives of the Dutch Ministries of Justice and Security and Foreign Affairs on 9 January 2020.

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

About the author:

Karin Astrid Siegmann is Associate Professor in Labour and Gender Economics at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS)

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  • Anonymous
    September 23, 2021