Tag Archives sex industry

Human Trafficking |Community self-regulation of the sex industry: a bottom-up approach for fighting sex trafficking in India

Efforts by the government of India to prevent and address human trafficking are failing to improve the conditions of the sex industry in a meaningful way, in particular due to its focus on the rehabilitation of ‘rescued’ sex workers. To resist this patronising attitude toward sex work, community organisation Durbar has been working on an alternative ‘paradigm’ to counter human trafficking in Kolkata, one of India’s largest cities. Its approach rooted in community participation in the protection of sex workers is proving effective because the dignity and agency of sex workers are placed central in the organisation’s efforts, writes Jaffer Latief Najar.

Source: Express Photo by Partha Paul

“Our work related to anti-trafficking has two pillars. One is protection, the other prevention. So we are doing rescue operations as a form of protection, and after the rescue operations, we are providing them with aftercare facilities… We are doing this so that girls can be empowered [through knowledge about trafficking] and can better understand what trafficking is.”

This statement by a representative of a non-government organisation working in collaboration with the Indian government in Kolkata to combat human trafficking, particularly trafficking in the sex industry, reveals how sex workers are framed – as victims of trafficking. While human trafficking indeed remains a serious issue in Kolkata, and in the rest of India, with India’s National Crime Record Bureau registering 6,616 cases of trafficking in 2020, this approach of ‘rescuing’ victims of trafficking is doing more harm than good. This is the case particularly due to its failure to regard sex workers as agential individuals, which has led to the criminalisation of activities related to sex work, forceful rescues, physical violence, and a loss of livelihoods in a context of chronic and widespread poverty.

This focus on human trafficking has been accompanied by additional interventions like rehabilitation and ‘sensitisation’ stipulated by Indian national laws; these have been inspired by the United Nations’ framework for anti-trafficking known as the Palermo protocol of 2000.[1] As reflected in the fact that raid and rescue operations targeting human trafficking focus solely on the sex industry (see Sangram, 2018; Walters, 2018), the representative in fact describes how sex work is conflated with human trafficking; moreover, the ‘aftercare’ that follows is rooted in the idea that sex workers should exit the sex industry given the opportunity to do so (even with their own consent). According to this paternalistic approach to the governance of human trafficking, a person’s agency to consent is irrelevant.

Resisting forced ‘resue and rehabilitation’

The targeted ‘beneficiaries’ of such anti-trafficking interventions are not without agency, however, but resent and resist these interventions. For instance, a sex worker I interviewed[2] said:

“Sex workers see anti-trafficking actors as dhandabaaz (rookies) who do business in the name of looking after the welfare of sex workers and monitor [sex] trafficking… The government should think about how it should help sex workers gain and reclaim their dignity. We don’t need rehabilitation.”

To deal with the detrimental impact of anti-trafficking practices, community collectives in India have shown resistance to the government’s approach to sex work and have conceptualised alternative standards for regulating the industry. For instance, in Sonagachi in Kolkata where around 15,000 sex workers are situated, a collective of migrant sex workers called the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (Durbar) is engaged in anti-trafficking efforts based on such an alternative governance approach. Unlike the approach taken by the UN and Indian government, Durbar does not conflate human trafficking with either sex work or migration, focusing instead on individual consent and the effects of the migration process on livelihoods (e.g. violence, working situation, health issues, financial exclusion, etc.). It considers sex work a contractual service between consenting adults without any element of force or coercion, supporting decriminalisation of consenting adult sex work in India.

As a result, the organisation has implemented a community-led self-regulatory board (SRB) to keep an eye on new entrants to the Kolkata sex industry, especially when they are underage or have experienced violence. But this kind of monitoring assumes a very different character – the SRB focuses more on individual and community welfare.

One of the members of Durbar talked about how the SRB was formed:

The idea of SRB arose during a conference at Bidhannagar in Kolkata. Many people from outside the city and some representing ministries attended. We presented our work on HIV prevention and other health-related issues. But the people attending the conference said that despite these efforts, we were helping in the continued entry of minors into the industry. We then took up the challenge and worked on this. Later, we decided that we should create a platform stopping minors and adults from forcefully entering into the profession”.

The SRB involves volunteer and peer sex workers who meet newly arrived individuals, make enquiries about their intention to join the trade, their relationship with employers or the person accompanying them, and examine the role of brothel owners and landlords in the process of recruitment. If it appears in Durbar’s intervention that the person is trafficked, it assists with the person’s return, typically without the interference of state agencies or partner NGOs. The peer workers accompany the person and keep in touch with them for a certain period to avoid their return to forced labour. Durbar also offers job opportunities to such persons within the collective.

This self-regulation approach is effective in identifying cases of abuse as they occur in neighbourhoods where sex work takes place, which is not the case for government interventions that may come too late. The approach has also helped community members to create a movement that counters the harmful consequences of government anti-trafficking practices. The data of a decade that I gathered from Durbar’s SRB for my present research show a declining trend of forced or trafficked cases where the organisation has intervened.

Not completely recognised by the government….

This approach of Durbar is not legally authorised by the government because India follows UN protocol guidelines and its domestic anti-trafficking intervention differs from Durbar’s focus on self-regulation. This has produced several hurdles for the members of Durbar in executing their interventions, and also limits resources. For example, a Durbar member mentioned that the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act (ITPA) prevents it from registering the SRB, as ITPA conflates trafficking with sex work, which is opposite to the approach of Durbar’s SRB. While India’s Supreme Court acknowledged the efforts of Durbar and invited Durbar to contribute to national policies on sex work and trafficking, talks with the government about the SRB’s registration have failed. This has resulted in everyday resistance against forced rescues and exclusion from welfare schemes for migrants and entire labour sectors, leaving the community to manage their affairs by interventions like SRB with limited resources.

…yet embraced on the ground

But despite such challenges, my observations of the SRB’s operations on the ground indicate that it has significant legitimacy and acceptability among community members and thus can be viewed as an effective bottom-up approach in combating human trafficking that directly assists in minimising the harm to and abuse of its members. This bottom-up approach has also helped marginalised communities such as sex workers to further develop a movement for advocating their rights and dignity, and challenge the legislations through protests and advocacy campaigns. As a substitute to the government’s approach that does not seem to be built on an understanding of the dynamics of the sex industry, this approach that is conceived and led by community itself shows the effectiveness of participatory governance and hence reflects a learning scope for an evolving critical conceptualisation of human trafficking, hybrid arrangement of anti-trafficking governance, workers’ agency, and the framing of anti-trafficking interventions.

[1] Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons Especially Women and Children, supplementing the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime.

[2] This interview was recorded as a part of my ongoing PhD research dedicated to understanding the marginalized perspectives on anti-trafficking interventions in India.

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

About the author:

Jaffer Latief Najar is PhD Researcher at International Institute of Social Studies, The Hague, The Netherlands.

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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.

Are you looking for more content about Global Development and Social Justice? Subscribe to Bliss, the official blog of the International Institute of Social Studies, and stay updated about interesting topics our researchers are working on.