Court: Amsterdam brothel owners must speak prostitutes’ language

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With reporting by Graeme Kidd.

Entrepreneurs in Amsterdam who want to open a brothel must speak at least one common language with the sex workers they rent space to, according to a Thursday ruling handed down by the European Court of Justice. The court made the decision as it is a way to guarantee the safety of the women, reduction of human trafficking, and to help prevent pimping.

The case involved J. Harmsen, a brothel owner who wanted to operate two more Red Light District window prostitution businesses, a move that was blocked by the office of the Amsterdam mayor, Eberhard van der Laan, on July 28, 2011, according to the court’s ruling. Contrary to the business plan he submitted, “Mr Harmsen rented rooms out in shifts to prostitutes of Hungarian and Bulgarian origin who, during the immigration admission procedure, could not communicate in a language which Mr Harmsen could understand,” the court wrote.

The mayor refused because he found Harmsen and his plan unreliable. An Amsterdam court dismissed a complaint against the city a year later, which was upheld by the Council of State, which noted that the decision is to “prevent criminal offenses such as forced prostitution and human trafficking,” and was further not discriminatory in any way..

Harness argued that rules requiring him to determine a “prostitute’s background and motivations” in private conversation was too much of a burden. He alternately suggested that by being on site and operating video surveillance, he was able to pick up on the signs of criminal activity and notify police.

In siding with the city, the court also noted the Council of State’s notion that the seeming overreach in authority was meant as a protection of public order, and that being able to converse with a sex worker allows a brothel owner the possibility of stopping child prostitution.

The ECJ ruled that it was the job of a national court to decide if the public’s interest is served in restricting the offer of a service. It ruled that there is no undue burden as there is no requirement of a specific language to be used between a sex worker and brothel owner, nor of a specific fluency level, but “merely that the parties can understand each other,” the ECJ said.

The ECJ said it did not see a less restrictive alternative.

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