Priority in Addressing and Preventing Trafficking for Domestic Work in the Netherlands: Reducing the vulnerability of domestic workers by increasing their visibility

Priority in Addressing and Preventing Trafficking for Domestic Work in the Netherlands: Reducing the vulnerability of domestic workers by increasing their visibility

By Eefje de Volder

Tilburg University and DemandAT Country Study author


The Netherlands is generally performing well when it comes to addressing human trafficking. Yet, there is still much to achieve when it comes to combatting labor exploitation. Due to their vulnerability domestic workers are one group particularly prone to labour exploitation. Therefore reducing their vulnerability is crucial in addressing and preventing trafficking in human beings..

The domestic work sector is one of the main sectors in the Netherlands where labour exploitation occurred in 2014. Although the number of registered victims in the domestic sector is not high, the percentage of victims has increased considerably over the past years the number of victims of exploitation outside the sex industry rose from 2% in 2012 to 14.3% in 2014. The main forms of trafficking in domestic work detected in the Netherlands involve: (1) au pairs; (2) live-in domestic workers at diplomatic households; and (3) live-in domestic (migrant) workers (including children).

There are multiple reasons to believe that the actual number of victims of THB for DW is much higher than the figures suggest. First, the work takes place in private households, making detection by law enforcement agencies rare as their competencies here are limited. Further, and possibly related to the practical difficulties of detection, the domestic work sector is not considered a priority sector by policy makers and law enforcement agencies. In addition, domestic workers, particularly those with an irregular status, are reluctant to report their situation. And finally, there is still insufficient consideration by social workers and aid providers, that cases of forced/arranged marriage could amount to trafficking for domestic work when women are kept in the house and treated as domestic servants.

Thus, trafficking in the domestic work sector is a significant problem in the Netherlands that needs to be addressed and prevented. What makes these workers particularly prone to exploitative practices is their vulnerability. The main reason for their vulnerable position is the fact that the work takes place in the private realm, secluded from the public view. This makes domestic work particularly attractive for irregular migrants, since they are able to perform work out of sight of the authorities. Yet, at the same time this also adds to their vulnerability since their work situation is shielded from monitoring and control, by law enforcement agencies and others.

Addressing their vulnerability should therefore be a key priority in addressing and, ultimately, preventing trafficking in domestic work. Although the Dutch report underlying this blog highlights a number of ways in which the Dutch authorities and others can tackle trafficking in domestic work, the main focus should be improving the visibility of these workers to reduce their vulnerability to exploitation. To this end, the improved identification of exploitative practices in this sector is most pressing. Increasing the likelihood of apprehension will reduce the scale of these practices and improved visibility will raise awareness and improve protection for potential victims.“ This may simultaneously result in more successful criminal investigations and prosecutions in the context of THB for DW.

One of the greatest obstacles in (proactively) detecting exploitative practices in private households is the limited competence of the labour inspectorate. Yet when people decide to make their house a workplace, some form of monitoring of working conditions is justified. The competence could include, at a minimum, the explicit power to ring doors and ask questions of the domestic worker and the employer. The labour inspectorate could also consider other ways to reach out to domestic workers, including the use of social media.

Alternatively, cultural mediators, as initiated by the NGO Fairwork, should be structurally supported by the government. Cultural mediators are active participants in migrant communities. They inform migrants about their rights and where to go to in case of problems. Due to fact that they share the same cultural background, cultural mediators are often more trusted than law enforcement agencies. Since most domestic work cases come to the attention of law enforcement through these cultural mediators, investing structurally in this human capacity would compensate for the fact that law enforcement to proactively detect cases is restricted.

Finally, since NGOs are closer to this particular group, it would be a true added value for NGO’s, particularly victim support organisations, to have more prominent representation in institutional structures, such as the Taskforce on Human Trafficking, since they are in the position to bring the situation of these workers to the attention of all relevant stakeholders.

These measures are just some examples for improving the visibility of domestic workers with a view to reducing their vulnerability. As such this could be a great step forwards in addressing and prevent THB for this particular group of workers, both in the Netherlands and beyond.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily express the views of the DemandAT project consortium as whole