Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Beyond survival: moving to end domestic labour trafficking

Ending labour trafficking requires us to elevate the voices of survivors and collaborate across state and policy lines to ensure accountability.

Sameera Hafiz Ai-jen Poo
10 January 2016

Immigration rights activist protest on Pennsylvania Avenue in 2014. Cynthia Rucker/Demotix. All Rights Reserved.

Last April, a Nepali domestic worker named Karmo was rescued from the Virginia home of her World Bank employer after more than a decade of captivity. Karmo’s employer withheld her legal documents, stole her wages, and permitted no time-off apart from visa-related trips back to Nepal.

The rescue plan was led by Karmo’s relative, Sirmaya, who was also a trafficking survivor. But she was not alone that day: she had full support of two domestic worker organisations, Adhikaar and CASA de Maryland. Members of the organisations, including Latina, Asian and African immigrant women, some who themselves had recently survived labour trafficking, joined Sirmaya’s rescue mission to help Karmo escape captivity.

Karmo’s first stop was the 2014 National Domestic Workers Congress, where she was warmly embraced by over 500 domestic workers and organisers from across the country. Her rescue team took the stage to share the story and make the announcement. The joyful cheers and tears that followed reflected the power of the moment: trafficking survivors, with first-hand experience of an unregulated international system, were leading the movement to dismantle labour exploitation.

Domestic workers & state of labour trafficking today

While the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution outlawed slavery more than 100 years ago, stories of modern forms of slavery and labour trafficking continue to make news headlines. Instead of lifting up the voices of survivors, these stories often reinforce a dehumanising narrative of victimhood.

Take for example the story of Jing, a domestic worker and trafficking survivor from the Philippines, who had been trapped in a Staten Island home for over a year. Today, she co-owns Damayan’s Cleaning Cooperative, making $15 per hour and working with women who understand her story. Women like Jing and organisations like Damayan Migrant Workers Association set new norms around workers’ rights by amplifying the voices of women who are survivors. Their stories are the key to ending human trafficking.

The International Labour Organisation estimates that there are 20.9 million trafficking survivors globally and 68 percent of these cases are cases of labour trafficking, including domestic work. While there is no agreed upon number of domestic workers in trafficking situations in the US, smaller studies have highlighted the prevalence of the problem. Despite this, much of the public and political debate has centred on sex trafficking and often times law enforcement resources are devoted to larger sex trafficking investigations. Although forms of trafficking overlap, labour trafficking and domestic work deserve more focused attention and resources, given both the prevalence and invisibility of cases.

There are over two million domestic workers in the US. Ninety percent of these are women, and the majority are immigrant women and women of colour. They are the nannies who care for our children, the caregivers who provide round-the-clock care for our aging parents and loved ones with disabilities, the housecleaners who keep our homes healthy and secure.

The women who migrate to the US on visas often take these jobs working for wealthy families and diplomats in an attempt to break their own cycles of poverty. Working in the privacy of employers’ homes, the intrinsic power imbalance between employer and employee lends itself to circumstances of exploitation, particularly when the employee’s immigration status is dependent upon the employer. And even when domestic workers speak up and win legal cases, like Shanti Gurung in her wage theft case in New York, they face challenges with a system that is unwilling to hold traffickers accountable. Shanti has yet to see a penny of the $1.5 million settlement from her Indian diplomat employer, who threatened her and confined her to their home.

While not every domestic worker is exploited or trafficked, every domestic worker is vulnerable to abuse in the absence of fair standards. In that context, trafficking survivors exist on a continuum of vulnerable work in the care sector, which also happens to be one of the fastest growing sectors in the United States and many other nations. As the American population ages and as more parents participate in the labour force outside the home, the need for both child care and elder care support for working families grows. It is more important than ever for policy changes to expand resources and protections for domestic worker survivors of human trafficking and ensure traffickers are held accountable.

Solutions & recommendations

To break cycles of exploitation, the National Domestic Workers Alliance and its affiliated organisations—Damayan, Adhikaar, and CASA de Maryland—developed the Beyond Survival campaign, laying out clear steps that governments, service providers and media can take to reduce trafficking and place workers’ voices at the centre of the conversation.

These recommendations provide a meaningful and rights-based approach to addressing the structural problems of human trafficking.

1. Collaboration—Anti-trafficking policies developed by governments and legislators need to be informed by the real-life experiences of survivors. The US Department of State’s recent pilot of a post-arrival programme in Washington, D.C., whereby certain domestic workers on temporary visas will be interviewed and screened for exploitation and trafficking, can only be successful with survivor consultation and collaboration. 

2. Accountability—Traffickers must be held accountable. Accountability must extend to diplomats who defraud or abuse domestic workers, and governments should seek waivers of immunity and suspend countries when diplomats engage in trafficking in their backyards. 

3. Protection—Law enforcement agencies and government officials must implement and enforce current laws protecting survivors, including disentangling policing from immigration enforcement. Current immigration enforcement policies create fear among survivors, making it difficult for law enforcement to fulfil the mission of uncovering trafficking. 

4. Long-term resourcing—Greater resources should be committed to services and advocacy that meet the long-term needs of survivors such as housing and employment, and engage survivors in trafficking policy advocacy. Few anti-trafficking dollars are devoted to building the self-sustainability, confidence, and advocacy capacity of survivors.

Where we go from here?

We are building a movement anchored on the belief that culture and economy should honour and value all human life equally. As we continue to draw national attention to cases of trafficked domestic workers, we hope to expand the number of survivor leaders and affiliates anchoring the Beyond Survival campaign and push for comprehensive federal legislation to address the trafficking of domestic workers. 

Domestic workers who have survived human trafficking are more than victims. Women like Karmo, Jing, and Shanti live at the edge of our globalised economy and at the centre of our future. Their experiences tell a critical story of our world’s new economic reality: extreme global inequality and unprecedented migration across borders, with women of colour in some of the most vulnerable positions. As organisers and activists, their voices and leadership in news headlines and public policy can transform the cycles of victimisation and hold our institutions accountable. Governments and policymakers alike need to recognise survivors, and work together in a movement to end human trafficking.

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