4th Jun 2023

EU court upholds prostitutes' language rights

  • 'Interesting to see if municipalities around Europe use today’s verdict in farming sector' (Photo: Cédric Puisney)

EU judges have said a Dutch mayor is right to insist brothel owners can speak to the prostitutes they work with in a common language to help stop abuse. 

The ruling on Thursday (1 October), by the Luxembourg-based European Court of Justice, represents a rare meeting between EU single market freedoms and Europe’s sex industry. 

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It comes after the mayor of Amsterdam, four years ago, declined to grant new permits to J. Harmsen, who rents windows to women in the city’s red light district.

The mayor said No because Harmsen wanted to rent space to Bulgarian and Hungarian women, even though Harmsen couldn’t ask them, in any language they understood, whether they had been trafficked or forced to sell sex.

Harmsen said he could use interpreters or online translation software instead.  

But the mayor insisted the language barrier means he couldn’t “directly and reliably … form his own opinion on the prostitute’s background and motivations, without the presence of third parties who might influence her statements”. 

Harmsen then invoked a 2006 EU law on the single market for “services”, saying the Dutch mayor was being “discriminatory” and “disproportionate”. 

But the EU judges threw out his argument on grounds of “overriding reasons relating to the public interest”. 

They also found the Dutch requirement no more restrictive than need be to achieve its goal. 

Limited force

A contact at the EU Court told EUobserver the verdict “doesn’t mean brothel owners need to speak all languages, as the sex-workers may also be able to speak more than one language. If both speak English for example, that would be fine”. 

He noted that the verdict applies to all EU states where brothels are legal. 

It also doesn’t mean other EU cities must follow Amsterdam's example, but if they do, brothel owners will have no grounds to contests their restrictions under EU law. 

The Amsterdam authorities were unavailable for comment on Thursday. 

EUobserver also contacted brothel owners in the Netherlands and in Germany, but none of the contacts wanted to comment on the ruling. 

Prostitution laws are a national competence in the EU, resulting in a patchwork of rules across the bloc. 

But brothels are fully legal in Austria, Germany, Greece, and the Netherlands. 

La Strada International, a Dutch NGO which combats trafficking, told this website that EU enlargements in 2004 and 2007, which saw 10, relatively poorer, countries in eastern Europe join the bloc, prompted large numbers of vulnerable women to seek work in western countries. 

The EU, in 2011, did pass an anti-trafficking law in order to harmonise criminal penalties and better protect victims. 

The European Commission, in a recent study, noted that there were 30,146 recorded cases of human trafficking between 2010 and 2012. 

Eighty percent of them were women and almost 70 percent of all the trafficked people were sold into the sex trade. 

Other sectors

The study said most men are trafficked to work in the agricultural sector.

Thursday's EU verdict, highlighting the problem, comes amid a massive surge of refugees from Syria to the EU, many of whom are brought in by organised crime syndicates.

For her part, Marjan Wijers, a Dutch jurist who led a Commission experts’ group on trafficking from 2003 to 2006, told EUobserver: “Trafficking takes place not just in the sex trade, which gets most of the attention, but also in the farming and transport industries”.

“It’ll be interesting to see if municipalities around Europe use today’s ruling to impose similar language requirements in those areas”.


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