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Human Trafficking Awareness Day: Let’s Take a Stand for Domestic Workers

150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, it's time to recognize domestic labor as real work that should be protected.

Domestic Workers photo by Stephan Geyer

Globally, domestic workers are largely invisible and highly vulnerable to exploitation. Photo by Stephan Geyer.

Tiffany Williams is advocacy director for the Break the Chain campaign at the Institute for Policy Studies.

Today, the nation is once again observing Human Trafficking Awareness Day, and activist groups, government agencies, social service providers, and even celebrities will be speaking out about the issue. A few days ago, President Obama declared the entire month of January Human Trafficking and Slavery Prevention Month and reminded us that this year we are celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.

I have been working on the intersection of human trafficking and domestic worker rights since joining the Institute for Policy Studies as a social worker in 2008. Our project started 15 years ago, and today we work with a variety of worker-led organizations. In the beginning, we started drawing public attention to the severe exploitation experienced by domestic workers employed by diplomats and employees of the World Bank and IMF, and over the years, as more and more women came forward, we began providing direct social and legal services under the protections of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA).

In addition to being largely excluded from many basic labor protections, domestic workers are exposed to toxic chemicals and hazardous conditions and only 4 percent of workers are covered by employer-sponsored health insurance.

The initial TVPA, and its subsequent reauthorizations, passed with bipartisan support and unanimous consent. Advocates working on behalf of trafficking survivors in the United States point to the dramatic impact of having the law in place, not only for prosecutions and stronger penalties, but also because it opened access to safety net programs and immigration relief that allowed victims to come forward with less fear about what would happen to them and their families.

It is particularly poignant to note that on this sesquicentennial anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, and on Human Trafficking Awareness Day, that for the first time since the bill was signed Congress has failed to reauthorize the TVPA. Further damage was done when partisan gridlock in the last Congress shamelessly allowed the even older and more established Violence Against Women Act to expire rather than better protect Native Americans, immigrants, and LGBTQ victims. These already marginalized communities deserve proactive leadership from their government, but were failed.

Domestic workers often live in the margins, too. As a recent NPR story noted, they are an "always present, but not often noticed" sector of the workforce. So when they are being severely exploited or subjected to human trafficking in private homes, it is even harder to identify them. This is especially true when most media accounts of human trafficking focus on commercial sexual exploitation.

A landmark report released by The National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), a network of 39 membership-based affiliate organizations of over 10,000 nannies, housekeepers, and caregivers for the elderly, revealed that the "unregulated world" of domestic work is ripe for exploitation. In addition to being largely excluded from many basic labor protections, domestic workers are exposed to toxic chemicals and hazardous conditions and only 4 percent of workers are covered by employer-sponsored health insurance. Sixty-seven percent earn less than the state minimum wage, and "91 percent of workers who encountered problems with their working conditions in the prior 12 months did not complain because they were afraid they would lose their job."

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According to statistics gathered for us from the National Human Trafficking Resource Center, from 2007-2012 the national human trafficking hotline received 873 calls related to domestic servitude—and almost 70 percent of the unique cases they identified had high indicators of human trafficking. The challenge of mustering the courage to ask for help, or the chances of being noticed by good Samaritans amongst the "invisible" class, (80 percent of cases were foreign-born), makes us believe these numbers are even higher than the hotline reflects. Notably, the state with the highest number of callers about domestic servitude was California, whose governor Jerry Brown vetoed a hard-fought Domestic Workers Bill of Rights last year.

This month, in honor of National Human Trafficking and Slavery Prevention Month, NDWA is launching a project aiming to raise awareness about human trafficking of domestic workers, and to build leadership skills of survivors to be their own advocates in policy and community discussions.

Human trafficking and worker rights are inextricably tied, and raising labor standards would help to address some of the most egregious violations that occur because domestic work isn't recognized as real work. At the same time, preserving strong Federal laws like TVPA and VAWA helps ensure that domestic workers who have been identified as victims can safely come forward and get help. Exploitation can be addressed from every point on the continuum, and domestic worker leaders will be speaking out at every opportunity.


Tiffany Williams is advocacy director for the Break the Chain program at the Institute for Policy Studies.

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