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New report sheds light on the human trafficking of domestic workers in the United States

Data from the Beyond Survival campaign reveals that domestic workers are vulnerable to the most extreme forms of exploitation. Domestic workers around the country are organizing.

The report The Human Trafficking of Domestic Workers In The United States: Findings From the Beyond Survival Campaign 2017 was released on March 13, 2017

In 2014, a group of domestic workers who had survived human trafficking took the stage at the National Domestic Workers (NDWA) Assembly to make an important statement, including Karmo, a domestic worker from Nepal. She was rescued by NDWA members from a home in Virginia where she had been forced to work from early morning until late at night for years. Her employer had confiscated her passport, and she was isolated and prohibited from speaking to other people. Upon arriving at the assembly, she was greeted by hundreds of other domestic workers, some of whom had survived similar abuse and exploitation.

Such experiences leave an indelible mark on the lives of domestic workers, their dreams, and their families. Nonetheless, many of these women have become leaders in their communities and in the movement to end labor exploitation and trafficking, like Shanti, a domestic worker organizer with Adhikaar – a worker rights organization in New York – who considers her voice to be the most powerful weapon in the fight for workers’ rights. At the age of 17, Shanti was trafficked by a diplomat employer, who paid her a total of $120 for working sixteen-hour days over the course of three years. Despite a judge having ordered her employer to pay her $1.5 million in compensation five years ago, Shanti has yet to see a penny of her money.

There are many more stories like Shanti and Karmo’s among the estimated two million domestic workers in the US today, which includes housekeepers, nannies, and homecare workers. Trafficking is notoriously prevalent in the domestic work sector. In fact, domestic work is the top sector from which trafficking cases are reported to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline, and domestic workers made up the largest portion of cases of forced labor reviewed by the Urban Institute. In New York City alone, nearly 80% of all human trafficking cases reported involved domestic workers, according to the NYC Bar Association.

For domestic workers some of the most common experiences include being forced to work long hours for little pay, being threatened and abused by employers, and having their movements restricted and monitored.

Trafficking is the most extreme form of labor exploitation, and encompasses a range of practices, which US law defines as the employment of persons “through use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage or slavery.” For domestic workers – most of whom are women and many of whom are immigrants, both documented and undocumented – some of the most common experiences include being forced to work long hours for little pay, being threatened and abused by employers, and having their movements restricted and monitored.

A new report from the National Domestic Workers Alliance and the Institute for Policy Studies, in cooperation with six organizations throughout the country which organize domestic workers ­­– Texas’ Labor Justice Committee, New York’s Adhikaar and Damayan Migrant Workers Association, Maryland’s CASA, Matahari Women’s Workers Center of Greater Boston, and Northern California’s Mujeres Unidas y Activas – details the myriad abuses domestic workers face, based on 110 cases of domestic worker trafficking survivors. These are women from a variety of countries such as the Philippines, Mexico, Nepal, India, Honduras, Egypt, Kenya, Mozambique, and China, who had been trapped in trafficking situations for periods ranging from months to decades in some cases.

The results are appalling but unsurprising, given domestic workers’ vulnerability to exploitation. Of the 110 trafficked domestic workers featured in this report, 85% reported having pay withheld or being paid well below the minimum wage, 80% had been tricked with deceptive contracts, 78% had employers threaten to report them for deportation if they complained, and 62% reported having their passports or other pieces of identification confiscated from them. Three quarters were restricted in their movements and communication, and were isolated from the outside world, often in abusive living conditions. Three women reported being forced to live together in a roach-infested shipping container. Two-thirds reported experiencing physical or sexual abuse at the hands of their employers.

Many were trapped in indentured servitude, such as one woman who had paid a recruitment fee of $40,000 for her job and was forced to work a full year for free to pay it off. Some were fleeing gang violence in their home countries, only to find they could not turn to the police here for fear of being deported. And many, like Maria* who came to US from Mexico to support her young children and her mother, were threatened by their employer with deportation if they ever tried to escape.

While these practices are illegal, law enforcement is selective and, for many domestic workers, previous administrations have prioritized immigration control over labor law enforcement.

While these practices are illegal, law enforcement is selective and, for many domestic workers, previous administrations have prioritized immigration control over labor law enforcement. Domestic workers are already at a disadvantage with regard to most other workers. They are excluded from many federal labor protections, including workplace safety under the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and union representation under the National Labor Relations Act.

And while the Department of Labor and the Department of Justice have personnel responsible for investigating cases of trafficking, the Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is often the primary federal agency investigating trafficking that involves immigrants. This creates an inherent conflict of interest given ICE’s mandate, which is at once to protect immigrants who have survived trafficking, but also to deport undocumented immigrants. ICE is already entangled with local law enforcement in many states, giving local police the appearance of a deputized deportation force in the eyes of those who might otherwise seek their help – something abusive employers are keenly aware of, and use to maintain control. With the Trump administration seeking to both increase budgets for immigration enforcement (while slashing budgets for most other agencies such as Labor) and to increase the entanglement  between ICE and local law enforcement, domestic workers will only be pushed further into the shadows, afraid to speak out on the abuses they face.

When the government fails to provide certain legal protections for domestic workers or to enforce the ones that already exist, exploitation becomes rampant, and justice is outsourced to lawyers and advocacy groups like Adhikaar, CASA, Damayan, LJC, Matahari, and MUA. Some domestic workers have won relief through litigation, but lawsuits may simply win back their legally-owed wages on paper only. And for every worker able to overcome insurmountable barriers to seeking legal help, there are thousands who are unable. After all, trafficking is a business, and there’s a lot of money to be made from it: the International Labor Organization estimates the trafficking of domestic workers generates $8 billion in annual profits worldwide.

However, there is hope for some remedies, even in the current political climate. The Trafficking Victims Protection Act, the country’s most important anti-trafficking statute, has been reauthorized under both Democratic and Republican administrations, with broad bipartisan support since it was first passed in 2000. Furthermore, the State Department has a responsibility to monitor conditions of employment under non-immigrant work visas, which many domestic workers use to enter the US, and therefore has the power to hold abusive employers accountable. And on the state level, many states including California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, New York, and Oregon have passed Domestic Workers Bills of Rights, which guarantee protection from discrimination and harassment, days of rest, and rights to written employment records, termination notices, and regular wage payments for domestic workers.

These initiatives have been spearheaded by women like Shanti and Karmo who have escaped their trafficking situations, come forward with their stories, and are organizing others to do the same. It is time for policymakers, government officials, and employers to recognize that the women who take care of what we value the most - our homes and loved ones - deserve the same rights and protections as all other workers.

* Name changed to protect confidentiality

About the authors

Sameera Hafiz is the Director of Advocacy at the National Domestic Workers Alliance. Sameera directs the ‘Beyond Survival’ campaign to end human trafficking of domestic workers. She also oversees the policy work of ‘We Belong Together’, a campaign to mobilise women in support of reforms that recognise the needs of immigrant women. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and of the Georgetown University Law Center, Sameera began her career providing free legal services to homeless families, survivors of domestic violence and human trafficking, and immigrants.

Michael Paarlberg is an associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, DC. He is a contributor to the Guardian and an academic researcher focusing on international migration and labor. He has taught at Georgetown University and published in Comparative Politics, the Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, and has also written for The New Republic, the Washington Post, the Washington City Paper, Slate, Jacobin, In These Times, and other outlets. 


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