Monday, May 25, 2015

Beyond Survival

Tiffany Williams is the coordinator of the Beyond Survival campaign of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, which works to build survivor leadership and awareness of human trafficking of domestic workers in the United States and around the world. She talks about her work and study on human trafficking and domestic workers across the United States, and the journey behind putting together the report as part of the Beyond Survival Campaign.

I started off about ten years ago. I started as a social worker and was working with women trafficked into the US nannies, caregivers and maids. They came from all over. What we did in 2010, to review all our cases. We looked to see what the impact of our work had been. While we thought we did help a lot of people and were survivor centred, we were not seeing a change in the scenario. If you took a case each from 1998 and 2008, and just changed the dates, you’ll find the case being the same. The kinds of abuse we see in our field are very much tied to issues about migration, labour rights, gender, economic inequality, climate change and foreign policy – all of which relate to issues that people are aware of on a global scale. But, somehow, it hasn’t entered the consciousness about trafficking. We decided to do something different. The cases were not different, so we had to be different. 

We joined the National Domestic Workers’ Alliance. It has 44 affiliate organizations and the groups are in places all around the country and their focus is on domestic workers’ issues and rights, and not just on trafficking. The situation of discrimination and exploitation that the industry itself faces – which is a global problem, not confined to the US or India. It is a condition typical to women’s work in the informal economy. 

Tiffany Williams | Image from here
Our services are based on consent – that’s how we start. What’s interesting about the way trafficking is being addressed globally is that it is looked at as a criminal issue that requires criminal intervention. Trafficking is seen as a criminal problem – looking at it as a victim and as perpetrator is short-sighted. Many of them say that they migrate owing to family needs, climate, trade or policy. There was no safe place to stay in, and are forced to migrate into a system that is strict about migration. Migration happens outside legal channels. What we’ve seen now is that, what we are concerned about is that there is a lot of push towards court-styled intervention, which makes it a problem between choosing to go into forced services or jail. That’s true mostly for sex workers in the US. With domestic workers and immigrant labourers, the situation is deportation or sentencing. It becomes a difficult model to tackle. I work only with domestic workers – but we are in solidarity with the others in the cause, so it matters how they are treated. 

We start with consent. Does the person want to be in the service? Do they have the ability leave at any point? We take care of their immediate needs at first. Safety, respect, immediate needs like housing, shelter and healthcare are given first. We see our work as service providers as being a source of information and coordination. There are a lot of stakeholders in a trafficking situation – we have to deal with the NGO, the police, the government and all of the different service providers that are out there. As a social worker, the service provider is supposed to be the key. We also work on survivor-led goal planning. When we do our case management, we ask our survivor what they want to do next. Obviously, safety and related concerns are a priority, but we ensure that each goal is led by the survivor. 

One of the things we do is also to tell testimonies. We believe that testimonies can be a healing process if the process is done right. We work with survivors and encourage them to share their testimonies on a consent basis. But unlike the conventional form of telling testimonies, we follow a system that goes beyond just being a survivor. Most often NGOs think of looking at telling stories as a way to position a survivor and an advocate, and then telling the survivor to keep recounting the “sad” story, and then turning to the advocate to ask them what they suggest is a way to change the scenario. Instead, we get the advocate to step back and ask the survivor to share her story with the vision she has for herself and the vision she has for policy change and for the world. 

Trafficking takes away choice, and the ability to choose what you want to do at any minute in your life. We try to continually build up an environment of choice for our survivors. We also do a lot of resilience work with our survivors. When we talk about resilience, we think about our role not as saviours and not as people who have solutions to all their problems, we work to help them connect to their own sense of resilience and healing. There are things that we do and already do in our lives to heal from our pain. We try to bring that out in our survivors. Social services in the US are time limited, so we try to make sure that our survivors are on their path to self sufficiency.