As the sole provider for her children and mother, Maria* was desperate to support her family. In 2007, she began working as a housekeeper for an El Paso businessman. For the next nine years Maria endured physical, psychological, economic, and sexual abuse at the hands of her employer.
In many ways, Maria’s experience followed patterns experienced by many domestic workers who have survived the most extreme form of labor exploitation — human trafficking. The approximately two million domestic workers in the United States often work for wealthy families, including international businesspeople and diplomats, cleaning their houses and caring for their loved ones. Their isolation makes them particularly vulnerable to abuse.
After the first week of work, Maria was forced not only to care for her employer’s home but also perform housekeeping duties at a local motel and various rental properties owned by her employer. On average, Maria worked 16-18 hours a day for $200 a week, far below minimum wage and overtime standards.
Maria’s employer controlled who she was allowed to speak with and severely restricted her movements. For one month, Maria was imprisoned without contact with anyone in a motel room. To prevent her escape, she was tied to the bed. During the years Maria was forced to work for her employer, he threatened her with deportation, citing his many connections in law enforcement and the courts.
Maria’s employer also claimed that he and Maria were in a romantic relationship, at times calling it a marriage. He used these claims to wrongly justify sexually and economically abusing Maria. When she found an opportunity to escape, Maria went to the Mexican Consulate and was connected to the Labor Justice Committee. At the time of her escape, Maria received a phone call stating that her employer had reported her to the police and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) so that she would be deported if she went anywhere near the border.
A recently released report by the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA) and the Institute for Policy Studies helps quantify the abusive patterns experienced by survivors of human trafficking like Maria by following the stories of over a hundred domestic workers across the country.
The Human Trafficking of Domestic Workers in the United States: Findings from the Beyond Survival Campaign is based on data collected by six NDWA affiliates who work closely with domestic workers. The report finds that:
- 85% of domestic worker trafficking survivors report having pay withheld or being paid well below minimum wage
- 81% have lived in abusive living conditions
- 80% have been tricked with false or otherwise deceptive contracts
- 78% have had employers threaten to report them for deportation if they complain
- 77% report having their movements restricted or monitored by their employers
- 75% experience isolation from the outside world, with employers cutting off access to communication 74% report having experienced emotional or verbal abuse by their employer
- 73% report working excessive overtime, more than 48 hours per week
- 66% report having experienced physical or sexual abuse, either by their employer or a family member of their employer
- 62% report having their passports or other ID taken away from them by employers
- 45% report being in fear of physical harm if they were to try to leave their employment situation
Addressing human trafficking requires a comprehensive approach that includes better enforcement of existing labor protections, accountability for traffickers, culturally and linguistically appropriate services for survivors, and investment in community-based organizations that organize survivors and meet their long-term needs.
New immigration enforcement and policing strategies announced within the first few weeks of the Trump Administration present urgent challenges for those responding to the needs of trafficking survivors, as these policies will only increase the vulnerabilities of low-wage immigrant workers.
Maria is sharing her story because she feels that it is important for others to know and understand that they are not alone in these situations and she wants to help educate people on ways to identify and support victims of labor trafficking.
The leadership of survivors and directly impacted workers in the struggle to end human trafficking and strengthen our democracy is now more important than ever.
*Name has been changed to protect confidentiality.
Michael Paarlberg is an Associate Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies. This commentary is drawn from the report he co-authored with Sameera Hafiz of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, The Human Trafficking of Domestic Workers in the United States: Findings from the Beyond Survival Campaign.