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Human Trafficking, After the Headlines

A new report goes past sensationalized stories to show what trafficking really looks like — and what those who have been trafficked themselves are doing to end it.
(Photo: Alessandro Di Credico/Unsplash)

(Photo: Alessandro Di Credico/Unsplash)

If you were asked to imagine what a survivor of human trafficking looked like, how would you picture them? For someone exposed to stories of trafficking through blockbuster movies and Sunday night cable news specials, the image would probably be one of a woman, perhaps alongside images of someone who has done something awful to her. But who is that woman, outside that sensationalizing spotlight?

She could be one of the nearly two million workers in the United States (according to an estimate from the Economic Policy Institute in 2012), many of them women of color and immigrants — women who we also know there is a very high demand for, one driven in part by economic inequality, resulting in a deeply gendered and racialized industry. These women are meant to be invisible, even when we see them in our own neighborhoods. Their work is sometimes not even regarded as work, but just something women are happy to do because it is something women do.

These women workers, according to a new report from the National Domestic Workers Alliance, “experience labor conditions that are often indicators of the most extreme form of labor exploitation — human trafficking.” They aren’t women in the sex trade. They are nannies, housekeepers, and caregivers for the elderly —women who are almost entirely overlooked in public debates about human trafficking. As a result, their expertise, from documenting exploitation they have faced to organizing resistance in their own communities, has been absent.

To create the report, the NDWA, which describes itself as being “powered by … more than 15,000 workers in 37 cities and 18 states,” worked alongside a campaign called Beyond Survival, which looked at 110 cases of domestic worker trafficking. Their research and organizing reveals, past the sensational headlines and stories of victimization, what trafficking in the U.S. looks like—and what workers are doing to end it. In the trafficking cases NDWA and Beyond Survival examined, workers reported some strikingly common abuses: having pay withheld or being paid well below minimum wage (among 85 percent of those trafficked domestic workers); living in abusive conditions (81 percent); being tricked by employers with false or otherwise deceptive contracts (80 percent). Two-thirds of trafficked domestic workers reported their employer or employer’s family members physically or sexually assaulted them.

Beyond Survival isn’t just about changing the picture of human trafficking. “Rather than simply telling stories of abuse and survival, Beyond Survival tells stories of leadership and policy change led by workers themselves,” the report states.

One of the trafficking survivors featured in the report, Rosa, is an immigrant to the U.S. who entered the country with her children after escaping violence at home, only to endure more violence from the very people who said they would help her migrate. “When she entered the U.S., Rosa turned herself and her children in, stating she would prefer to be in jail in the U.S. than killed by her brother’s murderers,” the report states. Rosa found an immigration attorney to work on her case, and she found domestic and landscaping work. But the family did not pay her, and threatened her with deportation. That wasn’t the end of the story: Rosa became a member of an organization affiliated with the NDWA called the Labor Justice Committee. She is now pursuing a legal claim to get back her stolen wages.

Consider Rosa’s case alongside the much-publicized February convening at the White House on how to “solve” what President Donald Trump called “the human trafficking epidemic, which is what it is…. We’re going to help out a lot. ‘Solve’ is a wonderful word, a beautiful word, but I can tell you, we’re going to help a lot.” Trafficked domestic workers have some solutions that may interest the Trump administration. When they complained to their employers about abusive working conditions, 78 percent of them report their employers retaliated by threatening them — as Rosa was — with deportation. If Trump is serious about “solving” trafficking, he will have to do more than get the words “trafficking” and “epidemic” into headlines. He will have to look at some of his administration’s first and most damaging policy moves.

“Trump’s immigration policies — including raids, discriminatory bans, heightened policing of already over-policed communities, arrests outside churches, in courts, and in cars — send a clear message to traffickers and other employers preying on the most vulnerable workers,” says Sameera Hafiz, the advocacy director at the NDWA and a co-author of the report, “that corporate interests override human rights protections and dignity is put aside for the sake of hateful campaign promises.”

Resistance to this kind of consideration won’t be unique to the Trump administration. The war on trafficking, at least as it has been conducted from within the White House over the last two decades, has placed trafficking in a vacuum, to be “combated” far from other political and economic realities. Within the U.S., our government has fought the war on trafficking primarily as a war on commercial sex, one in which the people facing abuse at work are not even regarded as workers. (If you ever wondered why “sex trafficking” and “labor trafficking” were considered different phenomenon, that vision of trafficking explains why.) As a result, it is a “war” that has also had more room for prosecutors and police than it has had for workers. But trafficking takes place at and for work. And if you want to address it, it will involve regarding those workers not just as victims, but as advocates, as organizers, as leaders.

Trafficked domestic workers demanding that respect and dignity are having to do so while also cutting through layers of anti-trafficking rhetoric and policy, aimed not at ending trafficking but at ending sex work. Perhaps most striking of all, domestic workers report some of the same kinds of abuse faced by sex workers: working and living in dangerous places, and for bosses who assault, abuse, and deceive them. But this abuse is recognized as a potential trafficking situation when it takes place in a brothel or strip club, not in a kitchen or a nursery.

Sex trafficking and labor trafficking are written into our laws as distinct, which isn’t the reality. In 2012, as California voters considered the anti-sex trafficking ballot initiative Prop 35, some anti-trafficking advocates tried in vain to explain why sexual assault shouldn’t be penalized differently, as the law would, for “forced labor” than for “sex trafficking.” Cindy Liou, a staff attorney at Asian Pacific Islander Legal Outreach (which works with hundreds of survivors of human trafficking) told me at the time, “Our forced labor cases may involve sexual assault, or we may have cases where a client isn’t forced to prostitute herself for money, but is forced to commit sexual acts for non-commercial means — [under Prop 35] that would no longer be considered ‘forced work.’” (The law passed.)

There’s another difference between sex trafficking and labor trafficking, one that explains what domestic workers are also up against. When sex workers face abuse, their stories end up as fodder for some anti-trafficking activists to rationalize eliminating the sex industry. But domestic work is simply a job too high in demand for anyone to entertain calls for it to be abolished; domestic workers are, as the NDWA puts it, “the women whose work makes all other work possible.” If trafficked domestic workers succeed in being seen as workers with leadership to offer, perhaps all trafficked workers can be regarded in the same light.