Beyond survival: lessons from domestic worker organising campaigns against human trafficking and labour exploitation
Anti-trafficking campaigns can help to tip the scales towards justice, but they will only succeed if they are grounded in the lived experiences of survivors and oriented towards systemic solutions.
'Campaigns to raise public awareness of human trafficking may have flaws, but their overall impact is positive. YES OR NO?'
Author of Threadbare: Clothes, Sex & Trafficking
Director of the US Office on Trafficking in Persons
Advocacy Director at Walk Free
Director of the Ophidian Research Institute
CEO for The Mekong Club
University of Nottingham
Director of Desiree Alliance
Creative Director at Love146
National Domestic Workers Alliance
Survivor of Human Trafficking
No, though many mainstream anti-trafficking campaigns have had beneficial effects. They have raised the issue of human trafficking on a global scale, and have helped to encourage national and international action to protect victims. However, they also suffer from serious limitations, which means that their overall contribution can sometimes be less than positive.
Most importantly, they are constrained by a widespread tendency to organise exclusively around the issue of human trafficking, which frequently ends up diluting the relationship between human trafficking and other forms of oppression and marginalisation. Too many campaigns feed into the formula that trafficking is an exceptional problem requiring exceptional remedies, rather than the result of systemic oppression requiring systemic solutions for all workers. Moreover, too many anti-trafficking campaigns use stories of vulnerability and victimhood to illustrate the scope of the problem, yet fail to meaningfully engage with survivors in creating and controlling these narratives.
Migrant domestic workers hold posters demanding the same basic labour rights as those of the Lebanese workers during a march in Beirut, Lebanon, in 2014. Hussein Malla/AP/Press Association. All rights reserved.
Public awareness campaigns have potential, but that potential has yet to be sufficiently realised. By learning from the flaws of the past and important lessons from domestic worker organising, anti-trafficking campaigns have a real opportunity to tip the scales towards justice and meet the challenge of ensuring decent work for everyone.
Trafficking is not a single issue
At the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA) we regard human trafficking as the extreme end of a continuum of labour exploitation that affects many vulnerable workers. It starts with low wages, lack of paid leave, unpredictable hours, and the inability to access social security programmes. It may continue with wage theft, sexual harassment, discrimination, verbal abuse, and involuntary overtime. We also know from the lived experiences of domestic workers – many of whom face high rates of trafficking in the United States and abroad – that inhumane immigration policies, racial injustice, gender inequity, economic inequality, and other systemic barriers all play central roles in increasing vulnerability to abuse on this continuum of labour exploitation. Campaigns against trafficking must pay attention to all forms of oppression and inequality.
Too many campaigns feed into the formula that trafficking is an exceptional problem requiring exceptional remedies, rather than the result of systemic oppression requiring systemic solutions for all workers.
Through many strategies, NDWA’s campaigns – even those that have not explicitly focused on anti-trafficking – have fought to disrupt this larger continuum of exploitation and vulnerability. For example, seven U.S. states have passed Domestic Worker Bill of Rights laws. These are hard-fought and complex legislative campaigns that ultimately create new rights and labour protections for domestic workers and bring recognition and dignity to the workforce. These laws have strengthened minimum standards for domestic workers, such as the right to minimum wage and overtime. Moreover, the strength of these campaigns is rooted in the leadership of domestic workers, who are willing to weave their personal stories into political action.
Narrative developed and controlled by survivors
In 2013, NDWA launched Beyond Survival, the first national organising campaign for domestic worker survivors of human trafficking. The campaign grew out of lessons learned from years of domestic worker organising in which affected immigrant and women of colour were at the forefront of the movement locally and nationally. So, from inception, Beyond Survival has been rooted in the voices and leadership of survivors engaging in political activism. Their leadership raises awareness about human trafficking without feeding stories of victimisation, as survivors themselves control the narrative and agenda.
The strength of these campaigns is rooted in the leadership of domestic workers, who are willing to weave their personal stories into political action.
This ethos is built into all of Beyond Survival’s efforts. At a recent gathering, campaign members – many of whom are survivors of trafficking – engaged in an exercise to analyse current news stories and headlines about trafficking. Many participants noted the prevailing media narrative sensationalised the traumatic experiences of victims while leaving the victims voiceless and marginalised, lacking either control or consent over the public framing of their personal experiences.
Beyond Survival members were disturbed by headlines such as The Washington Post’s, “Chinese nanny, beaten, starved, ‘treated like a dog,’ in wealthy Minnesota suburb”. While horrifying, these stories too often stopped short of elucidating the full story, ending with victimhood rather than survival, which is a key part of our members’ stories. As the coordinator of this campaign, it has been one of the most powerful experiences of my life to witness survivors engaging with policymakers, sharing outreach strategies to identify trafficked persons, or opening the circle when a new survivor joins the campaign and shares her story for the first time.
Systemic solutions for all workers
In the current political context in the US, campaigns powered by the voices of survivors of trafficking must play a central role in shaping the discourse on human rights. The Trump era promises a sharp increase in immigration enforcement, rise in hate-related violence and discrimination, unchecked policing of communities of colour, and the primacy of corporate interests in further weakening worker protections. Survivors are the true experts on conducting outreach to other domestic workers and identifying those who may be trafficked. They will be on the frontlines of assuring newly identified trafficked domestic workers that they can come forward and begin the hard work to becoming a survivor. They will innovate and experiment to determine how best to do this in the face of increased hostility from the systems designed to serve victims. Investment in this leadership and valuing the expertise of lived experience is more critical than ever.
Even in this divisive political moment, there continues to be sweeping agreement that trafficking is a human rights violation and a commitment, at least rhetorically, that it should be ended. Trafficking survivors are well-positioned to not only raise awareness about human trafficking, but make the compelling argument that we must continue to make progress on addressing systemic inequities. By shaping public awareness campaigns in strategic and visionary ways, survivors can convey that inhumane migration policies, over-policing, and the lack of decent working conditions sustain the climate that makes trafficking possible. In so doing, these campaigns can improve the conditions for not only survivors of trafficking, but broadly for low-wage, migrant workers.
This series has been produced with support from Brown University's Center for the Study of Slavery and Yale University's Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition.
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