Last year, attentive bus drivers noticed a number of dark skinned women taking the bus from the Bijlmer neighbourhood to posh areas outside Amsterdam. They suspected illegal practices and contacted the police, who arrested a number of women and praised the bus drivers for helping them in their fight against labour exploitation. Later it turned out that the women were expelled, and the issue of labour exploitation was never investigated. The employers were never fined. Subsequently, the Council of State decided that the police had not been authorized to check the passports of the women, as there was no ‘reasonable cause’ to suspect that they were residing illegally. However, as many of the women involved had already been expelled, this did not help them in any way. It is easy to accuse the bus drivers of discriminatory actions, but the problem appears to lie deeper. The question is not only what citizens can do, but also: what are the consequences of their actions?
Following implementation of international legislation, human trafficking not only encompasses activities in the sex industry. Official definitions have expanded to include the crime of forcing others into work in general. In the Netherlands, labour exploitation is punishable under Criminal Law since 2005. Not all unacceptable working conditions constitute labour exploitation. Indications of exploitation are the use of coercion and lack of freedom or choice available to the victim.
Combating human trafficking has become a state priority. A limited but growing number of cases has been brought to court in the Netherlands since the changes in legislation came about. In order to further raise this number, the public is seen as a potential partner for the State.
Very few people would object to attempts to curb exploitation. Yet, a particular shadowy side of the fight against labour exploitation is rarely brought to light. As the above example shows, the good intentions of a member of the public to assist the police may easily be turned into an indirect and usually unintended way of controlling migrants without respecting their legal protection.
The core of the problem is the distance between the debate on trafficking and the debate on illegal migration. Although human rights issues should always prevail, the approach in practice is often still strongly focused on migration control. Despite the goal of detecting bad employers, in many cases the workers are seen as perpetrators rather than as victims. These dilemmas are not only far from being solved, they are often not even recognized by professionals, let alone by the public in general.
The message is clear: the fight against human trafficking requires a rethinking of its relationship with migration policy, or better still, a clear choice made by the government. Failing this, migration control will prevail. Secondly, it should be unequivocally clear that those who benefit from exploitation should be the ones to bear the main consequences of detection, not those who fall prey to them.
Where does this leave the public? Before a clear policy choice is made, those who want to engage in the fight against labour exploitation should think twice about the extremely low prices they pay for certain products, rather than about the skin colour or travelling habits of people they meet. ‘Buying responsibly’, as the International Organisation for Migration advocates, is a much better way in this respect .