Campaign: Red Flags of Exploitation

Since 2024, Belgian law fully recognizes sex work as work. While this is a major breakthrough, it does not mean that all is well now within the sector. To fight coercion, exploitation and trafficking, sex workers indeed need guaranteed labour rights, but it is not enough.

With this large-scale audiovisual sensitization campaign, the Belgian union of sex workers wants to inform sex workers, their entourage and support personnel on how to recognize signs of exploitation and illegal practices, and to know where to head for support.

The idea for this campaign sprang from the mind of one of UTSOPI’s members, a sex worker who was a victim of exploitation herself. In her words: “if you don’t know your rights, you don’t have any”. After a series of talks with experts in the matter of exploitation and trafficking, and making use of her own experiences, she wrote the scripts and put together a film crew.

The result of her work and that of her team: four video’s, each one describing a different kind of exploitation, taking place in a certain context and involving a specific target group. Each video ends with a listing of the red flags of exploitation and the contact numbers of support organisations.

The videos are widely distributed. We send out the video’s individually to sex workers, of which a large number belong to the target groups. We send it out to support organisations. We invite every support professional, inside and outside of Belgium, to make abundant use of them.

All video’s have versions in Dutch, French and English. For two target groups (sex workers from Latin America and Eastern Europe) we have added Spanish, Albanian, Romanian and Bulgarian.

Fighting exploitation through taking on stigma

Finally, this project is meant to do more than only sensitize sex workers and support professionals. We need to reach the general public as well. To be able to fight exploitation and trafficking, the stigma on sex work needs to disappear. Stigma and shame are the largest barriers for sex workers to seek out help. To make stigma disappear, society needs to rid itself of the very harmful notion that human trafficking and sex work are synonymous. Instead, exploitation and human trafficking do occur within this sector, as they do in other sectors.

This project is made by sex workers for sex workers in need. To fight exploitation, we need to empower sex workers and listen to them. Who knows better what is happening in the sector than sex workers? Who is in a better position to detect troublesome situation and help colleagues in need?

Credit: ESWA

Target group: Eastern Europe

Rita and Karolina work side by side in a window on the Aarschot Street in the Brussels North Quarter. At first glance, their situation is identical, but nothing’s further from the truth. Karolina works for herself. Rita is pressured by her boyfriend Andreï. What Andreï does is exploitation and is punishable by law.

Women from certain Eastern European regions often dream of a better life elsewhere, given the lack of job opportunities and poverty at home. This situation is instrumentalized by certain young men, who approach them and promise love, financial security, jobs or educational opportunities abroad. Once in Belgium, the women are often isolated from family and friends, and are often put under psychological pressure.

Target group: Nigeria

Favour works in the neighborhood behind the North Station. To pay for her trip from Nigeria to Europe, she had to take on a debt with smugglers. She is now under pressure to repay this debt to her Madame. She wants this situation to end, but she dares not take action for fear that her family or friends back home will be targeted.

Illegal migration from Africa to Europe is dangerous and expensive. A system of loans and debt is used by young Nigerian migrants finance their journey to Europe. Often the costs of that trip is exaggerated and fictitious. Refusing clients or services, or refusing to repay the (fictitious) debt, can have repercussions for the family in Nigeria.

Target group: Latin America

Paola came to Belgium because it is not easy to find work in Colombia as a trans woman. She is self-employed here, but she’s still exploited. She rents an apartment for €600 per week. The owner of the property takes an abnormally large financial benefit from the rental. This is a form of exploitation and is punishable by law.

Many transgender people from Latin America flee transphobic violence. Once in Europe, they also face discrimination iand have little chance of getting a job in sectors other than the sex sector. They are at great risk of violence. According to Transgender Europe, more than 60 percent of transgender people murdered between 2008 and 2017 were sex workers. Their vulnerable position in Europe is also often exploited by unscrupulous landlords.

Target group: Western Europe

During a meeting at the UTSOPI headquarters, three young sex workers talk about how they got started. It quickly becomes apparent their experiences are very different. Their stories show just how realities can vary, from violent forms of exploitation to perfectly autonomous forms of work.

It becomes apparent that it's often a lack of information that leads to exploitation. Isolation and secrecy make sex workers even more vulnerable once they've started.

© UTSOPI, 2024. This awareness campaign was made possible thanks to the support of the Institute for Equality between Women and Men and the Secretary of State for Gender Equality. Special thanks to Miguel Soll (directing and editing) et Engel Doyen / Scherper (additional editing).