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Last Updated: Thursday, 12 May 2005, 12:03 GMT 13:03 UK
Sex trade's reliance on forced labour
By Jorn Madslien
BBC News business reporter in Sofia, Bulgaria

Young women going through customs at Sofia airport
Bulgaria and neighbouring countries are havens for traffickers
Working late at night in the streets around Sofia's most luxurious hotels, Mitko takes pride in his ability to quickly deliver what his customers want.

"Ten minutes and I can get you a girl - any girl - blond, brown, black or white," he declares.

Mitko's operation is part of a sex industry that, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO), "has become highly diversified and global in recent years".

Globally, forced labour - which includes sexual exploitation - generates $31bn (16.5bn), half of it in the industrialised world, a tenth in transition countries, the ILO says in a report on forced labour*.

"Technological developments such as the internet, as well as the proliferation of tourism, escort agencies and media outlets that advertise sexual services, have all contributed to the growing demand for commercial sex," the ILO says.

Source countries

As a local operator, Mitko says his customers are predominantly tourists or visiting businessmen.

Profits per forced prostitute
Prostitute (generic photo)
Industrialised countries: $67,200
Middle East: $45,000
Transition countries: $23,500
Latin America: $18,200
Asia and Africa: $10,000

Many of his colleagues, both in Bulgaria and in neighbouring countries, run what they see as export-import enterprises, providing what the ILO describes as sophisticated trafficking networks for the sex industry.

"Some regions, such as south-eastern Europe, [have] developed into a hub for trafficking in women following war and steep economic decline," according to the ILO.

"In Europe, Albania, the Republic of Moldova, Romania and Ukraine have been identified as important source countries of trafficked victims."

Profitable prey

Every industry has its top dogs. But it is unlikely that Mitko is anywhere near being the leader of the pack.

Despite the size of his portfolio of girls, their hourly fee of 30 Bulgarian leva ($20; 10) will do little to make him a rich man, at least by the standards of the West where his counterparts are raking in rather more.

In the industrialised parts of the US and Europe, a forced sex worker earns an average $67,200 per year on behalf of her (or his) master, according to an ILO estimate.

Yet by Bulgarian standards - one of the poorest countries in Europe where the average annual wage is about $2,600 - Mitko too is doing alright for himself.

A forced prostitute in the transition countries brings in profits of $23,500, making sex slavery 10 times more lucrative than other forced labour in these countries, according to the ILO.

Youth for sale

For Mitko, it is all about business. "For three years I've been dealing in girls," he boasts.

When asked whether this has made him wealthy, he shrugs. "Maybe," he grins, revealing wrinkles; evidence that, in spite of his sartorial choices, he is considerably older than those working for him.

Street children in Sofia
Poor children are often exploited by organised gangs

Mitko is clothed in expensive designer gear, his cropped grey hair showing below a trendy baseball cap. He clearly has a taste for youthful looks.

It is a taste not uncommon among clients of prostitutes.

A 2003 survey of 185 clients, by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), found that more than three quarters of the respondents "expressed a preference for prostitutes aged 25 or under, 22% preferred those aged 18 or below".

Many of the prostitute clients openly admitted to a preference for young and unfree persons because they are more docile, the report added.

Poor recruits

None of this is news to Mitko.

Woman begging in the streets of Sofia
Many Bulgarians live below the international poverty line

The girls on his books are all aged between 16 and 20. "Maximum 20," he declares, making graphical hand gestures to indicate his dislike of women who have left their teens behind.

He is reluctant to say where his girls come from, but chances are they have been recruited from rural areas where poverty is rife, whether in Bulgaria itself or from even poorer countries in Africa and Asia.

Some of them might work voluntarily; to prove otherwise would be incredibly difficult - indeed, the sex trade has "adjusted their strategy to increased law enforcement by using more subtle forms of coercion that are difficult to identify".

It is more likely that the girls on Mitko's books have been lured to Sofia with offers of better lives, such as work outside the sex industry or marriage.

"Many victims of forced sexual exploitation have been deceived into this abusive treatment, after originally contracting to undertake diverse economic activities," the ILO says.

"Agencies can work under several disguises, the most common being travel, modelling, entertainment or matrimonial agencies."

* The report "A global alliance against forced labour" was published at 1300 on 11 May 2005 by the International Labour Organisation.

Your comments:

For the vast majority of the adult industry there is no need to enslave the girls
Paul Markham, Brno, Czech Republic
I'm a photographer shooting porn and the story you tell is a biased one. We get girls phoning every day to be in porn movies, we don't have to coerce them. We know the bosses of bordellos, they are legal here, the only way to control them, and they have the same situation. In short, for the vast majority of the adult industry there is no need to enslave the girls, they are lured by the money. The truth is few men want a prostitute who's forced into the work and tourists/businessmen can afford the better. More likely the slaves that do exist are being sold to the locals. But that does not make such sensational news. Next time you put on designer clothing, look at the label and see where it's made. Probably in a sweat shop with workers forced to work for poverty wages. Do you care? No you're looking at the price and little else.
Paul Markham, Brno, Czech Republic

Here we have two main areas of abuse. Firstly the 'cabaret' girls who are treated by the local Mafia, like slaves and secondly the innocent workers that come from Romania, Bulgaria and Poland to work in restaurants or grape picking that are hired out to local men, including police officers, for sex. All blatant, all demeaning, all appalling. What kind of society have we bread throughout the globe that perpetuates such atrocity?
Name withheld, Paphos Cyprus

Being a Bulgarian, I have to admit that it is no pleasure reading this report. Crossing the line which separates "consensual" and "forced" means committing a crime, and should be treated as such. Otherwise, if there is money to be made, there will always be willing middlemen, connecting eager sex clients, mostly from industrialised countries and people willing to offer their services to them. Obviously, the lower the living standard, the bigger the chance of people becoming prostitutes, often against their best judgement.
Alexander, Sofia, Bulgaria In Hungary we have many prostitutes from Romania, Moldova, Ukraine, and Russia. Many come because they are promised jobs in factories or restaurants and arrive to be sold into the sex trade. However, I met a young prostitute recently (maybe she was 16 years old) from Moldova and she said she was kidnapped while walking along a country road and taken to Budapest. I reported this to the police who only laughed at me and sent me on my way! So you see, we encourage it and don't stop it. It is shameful.
Budapest, Hungary

It is easy to sit on smug armchairs and talk of solving as widespread and complex a problem as prostitution. Not one prostitute that I have visited appeared to be working against her wishes. Instead they seem to be happy making a fortune. Of course, most of them come from poorer countries, but appear to be completely aware of that they are doing. As long as there is demand, there is no way to rid the society of this "problem". The real question to address is why is there so much demand of prostitutes?
Julien, Switzerland

I toured alone through Bulgaria last summer and was appalled at the how frequently I was approached by prostitutes, on crowded streets in broad daylight. They were particularly aggressive and didn't care that all the shopkeepers on the street knew who they were. I just kept wondering where the police were to curb such activities. They obviously don't care or are paid to stay away.
Adam, Centerville, USA

Prostitution is not a crime, although I feel sorry for those women that choose it as a 'career'. Being forced into prostitution, through either physical coercion or dire poverty though is dreadful, and will go on as long as the clientele have absolutely no empathy with the women involved or even get a kick out of the idea of their helplessness. It is not helped by the way that police forces worldwide - including the UK - seem to find it easier to target the prostitutes rather than the scum selling and using them.
Paul Braham, UK

Organized crime elements are consolidating power and wealth on the back of this industry
Will, Washington, DC, USA
The use of Eastern Europe and the Balkans as trafficking and destination points for forced sexual labour will present a problem beyond what many seem to comprehend. Organized crime elements are consolidating power and wealth on the back of this industry. And this will plague countries such as Bulgaria as they try to integrate into the prosperity of a greater Europe. We must consider the long-term consequences of passivity on this issue, as it would surely create ramifications beyond the already appalling stories of slavery and abuse.
Will, Washington, DC, USA

When I was a young man, due to a lack of social skills, I used the services of prostitutes and got to know one of them as a good friend. It happened in Toronto, Canada, a well-run large city in a developed country. Her name was Lisa. She became a prostitute at around 17, because her father was placing too many restrictions in her life. The coercion that led to her prostitution was economic, which is true in most cases. I like to compare women going into prostitution for economic reasons to coal miners who risk their lives daily going down sometimes unsafe mines to earn a living. As long as there are rich societies and very poor ones, both men and women will want to migrate legally or illegally to rich societies. Regulating prostitution by governments will usually provide better working conditions and protection for the prostitutes. When governments get actively involved, it will greatly reduce the involvement of pimps & organized crime.
Name withheld, Toronto & Canada

This is a poor country offering very limited opportunities to all with limited education, especially in rural areas. Prostitution, whilst an anathema to those of us with computers and an internet connection, may be a pragmatic solution to many of these people. Attention should be focused on decriminalisation to remove the influence of organised crime, improve the health of sex workers and provide other support (such as adult education). It's called the worlds' oldest profession for a reason and men will always buy sex, be they English stag revellers or Turkish truck drivers.
Mat, Sofia, Bulgaria

This is a business which humankind would do well to close down
Tony, Athens, Greece
It's all good and well giving a moral thrashing to clients of sex-workers, but the cold fact remains that these people are traded and enslaved like inanimate things while others profit in their misery. This is a business which humankind would do well to close down.
Tony , Athens, Greece

I come from Tema in Ghana. Few of the prostitutes here are Ghanaians, most have been trafficked in from neighbouring countries (Ivory Coast) and some are also from the rural areas. I can only imagine their misery. The problems that these girls face are as much to do with the willing 'client' who seeks their service as they are to do with their 'owner'. Some of these girls are doing this type of job due to poverty. The solution to this human disaster is eminently clear. If men are to stop cheating on their wives and jobs are provided in the rural areas I don't think all these would happened
Adjra Samuel, Tema, Ghana

We are often told that prostitution work is a choice some people make, which cannot be criticised. This may sometimes be true. However, if we are to protect those who are coerced into it we have to stop it, and penalising those who use prostitutes would be a start. Seeing as many of the 'end user' countries are in the EU, this should be quite possible.
Thomas, Prague, Czech Republic/London

It amazes me that these "pimps" are so proud of what they do because they are making money. It's heartbreaking. If only these men could see that these women and girls are human beings, and deserve to be treated as such. Don't any of them have sisters, mothers, daughters, grandmothers? The irony is that these pimps and human traffickers are destroying the lives of these women, and while they are making money, they also lose their own humanity in the process.
Jane, California, USA

The clients don't want to believe that most of the girls were smuggled
Hank, San Francisco, USA
At any given time there are about a dozen Asian Message Parlors operating in San Francisco and the bay area. The clients don't want to believe that most of the girls were smuggled into the US and coerced into prostitution. Local law enforcement officers attempt to curtail the business in the suburbs but have given up on stamping it out in the city. Periodic harassment of employees and customers seems to be their policy.
Hank, San Francisco, USA

I have heard of girls brought from Eastern Europe promised a career in art performances and a bright future, once they arrive their passports are confiscated and they are forced to perform in peep shows, go-go bars and prostitution houses. The situation is unacceptable! These girls are exposed to maltreatment and STDs on a daily basis. This injustice is committed by the Lebanese mafia and is facilitated by the government's weakness and corruption, the girls are often stripped of their most basic human rights, the international community should react. The situation is simply unacceptable!
Joe, Beirut, Lebanon

Let me just tell you that many of the girls have made their own choice. Many university students see prostitution as an easy way of getting money. I'm okay with it if that's their choice. Maybe it's easier than working 10 hours a day, you know. What feels wrong, though, is the girls who get kidnapped. They shouldn't be that naive. Anyway, it's sad that almost every other article I read about Bulgaria is about prostitutes. I hope things change.
Valentina, Sofia, Bulgaria

Many women here think it's the easiest way to earn their daily bread
Taras, Kyiv, Ukraine
I spoke with my fellow citizen, a prostitute in Kiev, last year. She's 19 and has been having a terrific life in Ukraine and Western Europe. In Spain she had worked in brothel from dawn till midnight before she realized it's better to work in my city's growing commercial sex market targeting West Europeans. I don't know how I could resolve this problem of forced labour in our streets but many women here think it's the easiest way to earn their daily bread.
Taras, Kyiv, Ukraine

It seems to me that the sad truth here is that these young girls are desperate to get to the west but the immigration process makes it too difficult to do so legally. This is the root of the problem. If western countries like the UK and Ireland would offer more visas to young people from places like Ukraine, Moldova and Bulgaria then we could at least keep track of these young people and ensure that they are not being exploited.
Richard Nightingale, London England

The sex industry in Bulgaria started in Borovets and Pamporovo in the eighties where underpaid citizens of Britain enjoyed their only chance to ski and more. At that time girls were available for anywhere between 5 and 30 pounds. After fifteen years of red mafia rule and restrictive monetary policies imposed by its new Western European "friends" Bulgaria has turned into a nightmare. Nothing much has been left there for young people to hold on to. For those that can not get away and salvage themselves and their families, things are simple - you either get by or go crazy. Nothing much has changed in Borovets and Pamporovo too. Englishmen still come by the thousands to ski, eat, drink and enjoy other pleasures. All in one dirt cheap package.
Vergil, Tombstone

Traffickers prey on their victim's lack of information
Andrea Powell, Washington, DC
I am co-director of an international young women's organization. We work very hard to educate young women about the dangers of illegal migration and sex trafficking. We have worked with local groups in Uzbekistan, Bosnia, and now the United States to not only offer information about what human trafficking is, but how they can fight it through education and good social networks. Traffickers prey on their victim's (man or woman) lack of information, poverty, and desperation. Poverty reduction and more information about how one can be trafficked is key to saving millions of lives around the world.
Andrea Powell, Washington, DC

There are very few ladies who willingly become prostitutes. Most are forced into it. Living in Toronto I will visit strip clubs, but will not go to massage parlours or visit prostitutes. Many massage parlours "employ" ladies who speak little English and for the men who are willing to look at the truth, would realize that these ladies are forced labour. This is the world's oldest profession. You will never be able to make it go away. If you insist on going to a prostitute, you can do your part (to reduce sex slavery) by doing research to make sure that the lady who you are paying to have sex with is doing it of her free will.
Jack, Toronto, Canada

This is sad and disgraceful. Is there a solution? Probably not. As long as there are willing, hungry, repulsive men, with spare dollars, looking for a "fun time," without concern for the exploitation of women, then this tragedy will go on for the unforeseeable future.
AJ, Seattle, WA USA

Russia is one of the countries that supplies a large number of slaves all around the world. Most of them are young girls who were kidnapped or tricked by traffickers. They have to work as prostitutes in order to buy themselves out and afford ticket back home. It's sad that neither Russia or country they are sold to seem to care and provide any legal support.
Irina, Buffalo, USA

The solution to this problem is legalizing prostitution and punishing trafficking
S Bhattacharya, Pittsburgh, USA
The solution to this problem is legalizing prostitution and punishing trafficking of sex workers severely. A person entering this trade should have legal ways of getting into it and should have the right to get out of it whenever she/he wants. The governments of these high sex tourism countries set up relief centres where exploited sexworkers can receive help without being jailed or deported. These would help the world agencies to collect data of the traffickers and help the sex workers to work in a Aids free environment under the government agencies where they pay taxes and are allowed to leave when they feel like.
S Bhattacharya, Pittsburgh, USA

Unfortunately prostitution is a fact of life, and the focus of any effort to help these poor women should be to firstly to free them from their forced labour and secondly to find them another profession. If prostitution is a business, legalize it. Then governments can go about doing more good for the "liberated" prostitutes than they ever could have when the women were kept underground and hidden from the government's eyes. Only after the extent of the problem can be surmised will it be possible to find a better life for those who are currently held at the mercy of their owners.
Kevin Ray, Rockville, USA

Living in Prague I see plane loads of young Englishmen coming over for stag nights. The use of prostitutes by some of these young men would alarm their partners back home. Few of the prostitutes in Prague are Czech, most have been trafficked in from Eastern Europe (often Bulgaria) and I can only imagine their misery. The problems that these girls face are as much to do with the willing 'client' who seeks their service as they are to do with their 'owner'.
Martin, Prague, Czech Republic

The solution to this human disaster is eminently clear: If we men were not to succumb to the self-delusion that prostitutes wanted to be with their clients and reminded ourselves that no happiness was ever found in cheating on our wives and partners, demand would dry up. Would hotels in Bulgaria and elsewhere be brave enough to put leaflets in their rooms showing the reality of prostitution? Here are the real double standards.
Hugh, Istanbul, Turkey

Timeline: Bulgaria
25 Apr 05 |  Country profiles
Country profile: Bulgaria
25 Apr 05 |  Country profiles

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