By Kate Castenson, HTC associate
January was National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month, and the heightened public awareness of human trafficking should prompt a critical reflection about whether generating awareness of such problems can lead to effective solutions. In many cases, publicity of trafficking can lead to changes that have a positive impact on vulnerable populations, as evidenced in the recent domestic work and forced labor case involving Ms. Devyani Khobragade, an Indian diplomatic official.
Khobragade, an envoy at the Indian consulate in New York City, was arrested in December on charges of visa fraud and making false statements regarding the treatment of Sangeeta Richard, her domestic worker. Richard was allegedly overworked and underpaid by Khobragade – the indictment states Richard often worked 94 to 109 hours/week for Khobragade and was paid approximately $1.85/hour. Although the indictment against Khobragade did not list trafficking as one of the charges, this could be considered a trafficking case because Khobragade employed fraud and coercion by withholding Richard’s passport and using intimidation against her family in India. The public reaction to the Khobragade case demonstrates how heightened awareness about human trafficking can lead to positive outcomes for the anti-trafficking movement.
Awareness among vulnerable populations
In a statement issued by Safe Horizon, Richard said, “I would like to tell other domestic workers who are suffering as I did — you have rights and do not let anyone exploit you.” Trafficking victims may hear Richard’s story and be empowered to bring their cases to law enforcement authorities. Increasing awareness among vulnerable populations is a best practice of anti-trafficking campaigns and was identified as a core objective of the recently released Federal Strategic Action Plan on Services for Victims of Human Trafficking in the U.S. The plan references programs specific to migrant domestic workers, including a “Know Your Rights” informational video the federal government will show in the waiting rooms of U.S. embassies and consulates overseas to inform people like Richard about their rights as workers in the U.S.
Awareness among perpetrators and policymakers
The Khobragade case is not the first human trafficking case to implicate a diplomatic official in the U.S. In the past decade, “about 20 domestic-worker trafficking lawsuits have been filed against diplomats and other foreign officials” in U.S federal courts. If these cases are pursued and U.S. laws against trafficking are enforced, awareness will rise among members of the diplomatic community. Diplomats have much to lose – jobs, prestige, legitimacy – if they are implicated in a trafficking case.
Increased awareness can also prompt policymakers to implement new laws or regulations to prevent these cases. The Khobragade case already generated a draft policy within the Indian government that would provide greater protections to migrant workers. An even better step would be for India (and other countries) to accede to the Domestic Workers Convention, which stipulates that migrant domestic workers are entitled to receive written employment offers or contracts that are enforceable in the country where they will work, and that they have a right to keep their travel and identity documents in their own possession.
Awareness among the broader population
Awareness-raising can also lead to a better public understanding about what constitutes trafficking. Some reactions to the Khobragade case have revealed certain segments of the population may not understand what distinguishes a trafficking case from a labor dispute. One shop owner in Queens said, “These people are happy to have a job. They’re doing well compared to how they’re doing in their home country. Be thankful for what you have.”
While any cases of unfair labor practices merit attention, the anti-trafficking community has a particular interest in highlighting why cases of trafficking for forced labor are particularly egregious. It’s important to counter the spurious argument that workers who are being paid can’t be victims of trafficking.
What does awareness-generating look like?
Raising awareness about human trafficking can take many forms. Sometimes, as in the Khobragade example, high profile cases of trafficking can lead to increased awareness among vulnerable populations and potential traffickers. Government officials may also take note and enact policies that promote an anti-trafficking agenda. Anti-trafficking organizations can also take proactive steps to shape public discourse about trafficking. One way to do this is to define what trafficking is – and is not. The Human Trafficking Center at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies has a taxonomy project that clarifies key terms used in the human trafficking field. With a better understanding of the types of trafficking – especially in the area of forced labor – cases like Richard’s will generate more widespread outrage and prompt law enforcement and policymakers to take decisive action to protect victims of trafficking and punish traffickers.