Since 2005 some forms of labour exploitation have been criminalised as human trafficking in the Netherlands. From a legal point of view it is difficult to identify labour exploitation, as clear guidelines are lacking. Since this criminalisation attention for combatting labour exploitation has continued to grow and different parties have invested in recognising victims. Jurisprudence increasingly provides guidelines. Nowadays victims are generally identified more easily than before, but at the same time many victims still go unrecognised.
That the identification of victims of labour exploitation is not yet functioning optimally is presumably partly because of the commonly held idea that suffering from labour exploitation is less devastating than being exploited in the sex industry. This image is dominant both among the general public as well as among professionals. However victims of labour exploitation can also experience serious abuse. Some are misled about working conditions, are trapped in their workplace and experience physical violence. Victims may also experience psychological and physical symptoms that are similar to victims in the sex industry. The perception that being a victim of labour exploitation is not so problematic is worsened by the victims themselves: through their low self-identification. Victims are not likely to consider their own suffering as serious enough to seek help nor to report their victimhood to the police.
Human trafficking is an offense which does not take place at one moment in time, but has a long-term character. This means that it is not easy to compare its victims with those of other types of crime. Trafficking victimisation is created under the influence of constant exploitation. The moment of self-identification may occur at various times during the exploitation or only take place afterwards. Self-identification is crucial so that victims may try to leave the situation or seek help. From victimology we know that self-identification can also be slow for other types of crime, for example because victimization is defined too narrowly or because of psychological mechanisms such as denial or repression. These factors probably also play a role in labour exploitation. Moreover there are a number of additional explanations for the low self-identification of victims of labour exploitation.
Scholars, for example, often point to victims’ immigrant background. Victims do not perceive the circumstances under which they work as worse than what they were used to in their country of origin; sometimes they even regard them as an improvement. They are also often not well-informed about their rights. This makes them less likely to see themselves as victims of labour exploitation. Others point to the fact that many victims are migrants with a precarious residence status, who fear deportation if they report violations to the police.
While it is clear which obstacles play a role in explaining victims’ low self-identification, it remains unclear how some victims of labour exploitation - given these obstacles – do arrive at self-identification. This question was examined in a recent article published in Tijdschrift voor Criminologie. Drawing on in-depth interviews and focus group discussions with victims and professionals, this qualitative study points at the importance of information provision in this process and identifies two ideal-typical pathways to self-identification. In the first trajectory self-identification is gradually formed through information gathering and deteriorating working conditions. In the second trajectory self-identification is triggered by a sudden vital event.
Organisations such as Fairwork provide information on labour rights to labour migrants who are in precarious situations. It turns out that receiving this information can accelerate or confirm the self-identification process for victims in the first trajectory. For victims in the second trajectory information is not a trigger for self-identification, but it does play a role in making it easier to seek help from organisations once they have already come to realise their victimhood. Victims’ educational level is likely to play a role here in that for better educated migrants, information can actually act as a trigger for self-identification because they are better able to process the information than less educated migrants.
It is important to improve the self-identification of victims of labour exploitation. It is in the interest of the victims and has a symbolic value in that it satisfies a social need for justice. It is important to identify potential victims and to provide the right tools to enable self-identification, but it is equally important to help them to find solutions to their problems other than being officially recognised as victims of human trafficking. After all, earlier research has also stressed that a criminal law perspective does not always do justice to the social reality around labour exploitation (Hiah & Staring, 2013).