It is hard to imagine a more inappropriate name for a brothel than Cuddles, the so-called massage parlour in Birmingham from which 19 women, mostly from Eastern Europe, were rescued on Thursday evening. After the raid, carried out by a special task force of female officers, a spokesman for West Midlands police said that the women were believed to have been tricked into prostitution. Allegedly their passports were taken from them and they were locked in the massage parlour during the evening to work, then taken to a house during the day and held against their will.
To anyone acquainted with the vicious conditions existing in the modern-day British sex trade, this story is unpleasantly familiar. One of the nastiest features of globalisation has been the exponential rise in people-trafficking from poor countries to provide sex, domestic service and cheap agricultural labour in the affluent West. Research conducted for the Home Office in 2000 suggested that up to 1,420 women had been trafficked into the UK for sexual exploitation in 1998, but everyone who works in the field accepts that the figure is out of date. The fact that many trafficked women are deported soon after they are rescued means that accurate statistics are hard to come by, but the police estimate that 80 per cent of the prostitutes working in London are foreign nationals, mainly from Eastern Europe and South-east Asia.
Not all of these women are trafficked, but a substantial proportion has been tricked into coming to the UK by adverts offering jobs as dancers and waitresses, only to be raped, beaten and forced to work as sex slaves. The Lithuanian mastermind of a gang of traffickers was sentenced last month at Southwark Crown Court to 10 years in prison; last week, another trial opened at the same court, this time involving four Albanians who deny seven conspiracies, including trafficking women into Britain for sexual exploitation and causing child prostitution.
The increasing frequency of such trials points to the success of the authorities in cracking down on trafficking - there were 343 operations against traffickers in the 12 months until March, involving 1,456 arrests - but also the scale of the problem. What has happened in this country and Western Europe, in a very short space of time, is nothing less than the industrialisation of the sex trade. Forget 19th-century notions of brothels as glamorous but decadent establishments, done up in velvet and gilt; trafficked women are transported between seedy flats and massage parlours, where they are expected to have sex with between 20 and 30 men a day, according to the police. Detectives also say that trafficked women are forced to offer anal and unprotected sex, for which prostitutes used to charge a premium, at cheap rates, with potentially devastating effects on their own health - and that of the wives and girlfriends of clients.
There is a parallel here with agriculture, where an influx of cheap foreign labour has driven down labour costs and caused a deterioration in working conditions: earlier this month, three reports from the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) revealed that between 420,000 and 611,000 temporary workers are employed in agriculture each year, nearly 10 times the Government's previous estimate. Again, not all are foreign or trafficked, but the Defra reports describe immigrant workers as "more desperate" and "likely to be more compliant" than their British counterparts. The risks facing them were vividly exposed in February last year, when 21 Chinese cockle-pickers were caught by rising tides and drowned in Morecambe Bay, while the bodies of two more have never been found. Four people are currently on trial at Preston Crown Court in connection with the tragedy.
It may shocking to think of the UK as a country in which Victorian conditions and even slavery have been reintroduced under our noses, but the evidence is compelling. So is the moral case for treating trafficked people as victims of dreadful exploitation, rather than illegal immigrants with no rights who should be bundled out of the country as quickly as possible.