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Bulgaria: Sex trade's reliance on forced labour

Publish Date: 12 May 2005

Source: BBC News
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.

Profits per forced prostitute
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.

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.

Copyright © 2005 BBC MMV