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Workers and workers association in different sectors, such as domestic work, fisheries or agriculture, are considered the experts in reducing exploitation and trafficking in their industry. However, when it comes to the sex industry, sex workers and the organisations working with them, are rarely consulted in the development of anti-trafficking measures.
As a result, the anti-trafficking community has alienated a crucial ally that can dramatically improve efforts to prevent trafficking and identify cases of trafficking in the sex industry.
Last year the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women (GAATW) conducted research which documented the strategies that sex worker organisations employ to prevent and address violence, coercion and exploitation in the sex industry, including instances of human trafficking. The research took place in seven countries with at least one sex worker organisation from each country.
While the organisations in the seven countries operate in different contexts, they fundamentally have the same approach to supporting women in the sex industry, including trafficked women. All of them respond to women’s needs by providing person-centred, holistic, and non-judgemental support.
All of them run a place which serves as a low-threshold drop-in centre, a safe and discreet free space where women can come, establish friendships, and access a range of services, from language classes to support groups, counselling, legal advice, and health services.
In addition, the organisations conduct outreach to sex work sites, during which they listen, advise, intervene and refer women, as dictated by their individual needs.
The research documented several instances where sex worker organisations suspected cases of trafficking and assisted the women in different ways – by calling the police, negotiating their release with the brothel owner/madam, or chasing pimps away.
What all these have in common, is that the solutions are not always obvious or conventional; in some cases, sex workers or their organisations had to get creative in order to find the best solution to the concrete situation.
Beyond support for individual cases, we also documented how sex worker organisations mobilise sex workers and their allies to resist stigma, discrimination and oppression, and to collectively voice their concerns, demand their rights, and participate in public and political life. This type of collective action builds confidence in sex workers and helps them better protect themselves and their peers against violence and abuse, including trafficking.
Importantly, sex worker organisations do not promote sex work as an occupation but, in fact, actively support women who want to leave the industry for a variety of reasons, including exploitative conditions and trafficking. They do this by offering English language or other classes and helping them navigate the available state social security and employment options.
We also documented how “raid-and-rescue” operations rarely identify trafficked or underage women in sex work but instead cause great stress and disruption to sex workers. In some cases, raids and entrapment operations actually led to girls entering the industry, since their faces were splashed on local newspapers and they couldn’t return to school out of shame.
In the aftermath of raids, it was actually the sex worker organisations who helped the women contact their families, kept them informed about the progress of their case, or brought them personal necessities and a change of clothes.
Despite this important work, sex worker organisations remain largely unrecognised and even vilified by the anti-trafficking community.
In some of the research countries, we found that the contribution of sex worker organisations for anti-trafficking work was recognised by at least certain individuals in the local police or anti-trafficking unit. However, we also documented cases where sex worker organisations had tried to join their national anti-trafficking task force or NGO network, but were either not allowed to or had to leave due to hostility.
Ultimately, sex worker rights organisations are human rights organisations whose primary mandate is to ensure that the human, economic, social, political, and labour rights of the people they work with are recognised and respected by state and non-state actors.
The research points to a new approach to addressing human trafficking in the sex industry—one that is based not on criminalisation and indiscriminate “raids and rescues” but on meaningful engagement with those in the industry themselves.