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Jobs must be part of the solution to human trafficking

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Human trafficking doesn’t just happen in faraway places like India’s brick kilns or Cambodia’s brothels. Over 8,500 victims of human trafficking cases were reported in the United States last year, according to the National Human Trafficking Hotline. There is no greater blow to human dignity than a person being forced to perform work or sex acts against their will.

One case of human trafficking involved 56 people, most of them Mexican deaf-mutes, who were enslaved to work as panhandlers in the New York subway system. The victims were illegally smuggled in to the country and then forced to work 18-hours days begging and peddling trinkets.

{mosads}They were held in debt bondage by their traffickers, who confiscated their daily earnings and kept them enslaved. One rehabilitated survivor ended up in a custodial job at Liberty Island (the Statue of Liberty). Unfortunately, most stories of human trafficking do not end with the poetic justice of attaining a job at a symbol of liberation.

Trafficked people are often society’s most vulnerable. Coming in two forms, sex trafficking and labor trafficking, human trafficking takes place when someone uses force, fraud, or coercion to compel a person into work or a commercial sex act or when a minor is bought or sold for sex.

Many survivors escape from human trafficking and find themselves in other forms of exploitation. One survivor exited sex trafficking with help from a friend who then trafficked her for labor in an office job. Another survivor escaped labor trafficking and started his own business driving trucks but was cheated of wages by his contractor.

A third labor trafficking survivor chose to knowingly enter a situation of wage theft because it was the only job she could find. To help victims to reclaim their dignity and thrive, we must address their economic needs and provide them with realistic, attainable paths to employment.

To date, most U.S. government funding and focus related to human trafficking has been on criminal justice and human services: prosecuting traffickers, identifying victims and providing emergency housing or immediate services. While these interventions are vital, many agencies serving victims lack the resources to help clients find long-term employment. Survivors often have unique challenges to finding employment such as lack of a standard work history, or stolen or missing documentation.

Others may be unstably housed, have a criminal history associated with their trafficking experience, or experience Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) from years of physical abuse and trauma in prostitution or forced labor. Recognizing these unique challenges, the Global Business Coalition Against Trafficking — with Amazon, Carlson, Coca Cola, Google and Microsoft among its members — recently completed an assessment with their employer partners to study opportunities to create internal policies and practices so that employers are fostering work cultures in which survivors of complex trauma can thrive.

While creating a Jobs Collaborative for survivors, Businesses Ending Slavery and Trafficking (BEST) hosted dozens of focus groups and interviews with human trafficking survivors, victim service provides and employers to learn about the challenges human trafficking survivors face when trying to gain employment. The biggest challenge reported was a lack of a clear pipeline to connect survivors with jobs and job training programs that were appropriate for their needs. BEST is working with employers to help fill this gap. However, the anti-trafficking movement also needs public agencies and private organizations to help fund expanded employment services for survivors.

Some may argue that survivors of trafficking should simply enter typical job-readiness programs that exist across the U.S. Unfortunately, survivors who enter such programs often face barriers of stigmatization for their past exploitation.

When BEST provided training at one very trusted, reputable job training program, a case manager acknowledged that she had made derogatory and judgmental comments toward a client with a history of prostitution. Many case managers are simply unprepared to address the complex needs of survivors. We need to provide new training for case managers in existing employment programs and build new employment programs that suit the needs of survivors. For this reason, a vital next step for government agencies and private foundations is to provide financial support for survivor employment.

The most concrete way for survivors reclaim their dignity is through a job. It’s what makes survivors’ rehabilitation sustainable in the long term. And without a path to safe employment, victims of human trafficking remain vulnerable to repeat the cycle of exploitation. Global research and our own extensive professional travel confirm that without stable employment, many survivors, in desperation, will slide back into the same sectors that exploited them.

Mar Brettmann, PhD, is the executive director and founder of the non-profit organization, BEST: Businesses Ending Slavery and Trafficking. She created a Safe Jobs Collaborative, which connects survivors of trafficking with appropriate job training programs and provides trauma-informed training and support for employers. Prior to BEST, Mar was a university professor and author of the book, “Theories of Justice.” Mark P. Lagon is chief policy officer at Friends of the Global Fight and distinguished senior scholar at Georgetown University. Previously he was U.S. Ambassador at Large to Combat Trafficking in Persons, as well CEO of the anti-trafficking non-profit Polaris and of Freedom House.

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