Sex trade's reliance on forced labour

Bulgaria and neighbouring countries are havens for traffickers


By Jorn Madslien
BBC News business reporter in Sofia, Bulgaria



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.

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.

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.

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

Many Bulgarians live below the international poverty line
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

Many come because they are promised jobs in factories or restaurants

Attila Heltmann, Budapest, Hungary

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

Poor childer are often exploited by organized gangs
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.
Attila Heltmann, 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

Source: BBC News,