Supporting workers to stand up to trafficking and exploitation

Nearly 21 million people around the world are victims of forced labour.

Nearly 21 million people around the world are victims of forced labour.1 These women, men and children do badly-paid, low-skilled work without any labour protection and are frequently exposed to abuse and exploitation. Many are migrants escaping civil war, social unrest or extreme poverty in their home countries who end up working in unregulated industries such as agriculture, hospitality, domestic work and sex work. While a significant number are trafficked – often through coercion or deception – all experience severe forms of exploitation.


People become victims of human trafficking for reasons that are complex and interconnected. Draconian immigration laws, rigid border controls and increased demand for cheap labour open the way for unscrupulous employers to engage workers in deplorable conditions.


Oak believes that empowering groups of women most at risk, ensuring that their voices are heard and taking a rights-based approach to addressing trafficking and exploitation are the best ways to combat this trend and ensure justice for victims. To this end, Oak partners with organisations that support women who are exploited in informal and unregulated industries. This includes women who may not qualify as victims of trafficking, as defined by international law.


Oak works with organisations and networks active in countries of origin, transit and destination across the globe, including in countries where domestic trafficking is a serious concern. Western countries are perceived as especially attractive to migrant workers seeking to improve their lives. Of these, the United States, the United Kingdom and Switzerland are among the most popular destinations. Victims of trafficking are often caught in a system that prioritises speedy deportations for perceived immigration crimes over protection and support.


United States

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) offers perhaps the most successful example to date of an Oak partner working to end labour exploitation.


Known as the “tomato capital” of the US, Immokalee is where many thousands of impoverished South and Central American immigrants come to work on farms. For many years the region had a poor reputation. Trafficked or recruited and controlled at gun-point by cruel, greedy crew leaders, workers toiled for long days under the sun without shade or rest breaks for little and sometimes no pay. Their rights were denied and their voices were not heard. For many women, sexual harassment and assault by crew leaders and co-workers was a regular occurrence. Anyone who protested after a beating or even a rape by crew leaders was fired.


“When you first come here, you have no idea this could happen... sexual harassment... that you’d have to go through this or lose your job.”
- Female tomato-picker, Immokalee, Florida


In 1993 a group of migrant farm workers started the CIW to try to change this. For two decades the Coalition lobbied, campaigned and protested for fairer working conditions. As outrage over the abuse, beatings and theft of workers’ meagre pay checks grew, more members joined. The Coalition members began to identify and support the prosecution of traffickers and men who sexually assaulted women farm workers. Eventually, churches and consumers joined their struggle. Out of this momentum, the Coalition created its Fair Food Programme (FFP).


The FFP brings workers, growers and corporate buyers together to improve wages and working conditions in the tomato fields. Since it began a bonus scheme known as the “penny per pound” scheme, some 30,000 workers have received an additional USD 14 million. Other changes include: a 24-hour workers’ complaints hotline; training for workers on their rights and responsibilities; and a zero tolerance policy for child labour, forced labour, sexual assault and violence.


All of these are included in a Code of Conduct developed by workers and growers together. A complaint resolution mechanism on every farm ensures compliance. Annual independent audits make sure that growers continue to adhere to the Code.


Strengthening workers’ rights on the ground has gone a long way towards stopping sexual exploitation. “We didn’t know we had the right to complain,” said one worker. “Now, through the education in the fields, women know that they have this right, and that there is an investigation and a consequence.”


The FFP model is successful, largely because it benefits everyone. Buyers purchase from farmers implementing the Code so they know workers are protected. Their market share increases as the customers are loyal to companies that do the right thing. Growers access the largest tomato-buying companies and workers have better wages and decent working conditions. At its very heart is the basic idea that empowering migrant workers gives them the ability to resist exploitation and abuse.


United Kingdom

Perhaps in no other occupation are women more vulnerable to exploitation than in domestic work. The isolated, dependent and unregulated nature of working in private households leaves workers exposed to the risk of physical and psychological abuse, sexual exploitation, discrimination, low pay and long hours. Kalayaan is a UK-based organisation that provides the following to domestic workers: free and confidential advice on immigration and employment; practical emergency assistance to women fleeing abusive employers; and other support services to migrant domestic workers. More than half of the women helped by Kalayaan from 2008 to 2012 earned less than GBP 50 (about USD 80) per week and most had their passports retained by their employers. Two-thirds were too afraid to report it to the authorities. Disturbingly, this number is increasing.


The risk of exploitation of domestic workers was further increased in the UK with the passing of new immigration rules in 2012. These rules limit visas for overseas domestic workers to a maximum of six months, and no longer permit the worker to change employer. Since then, trafficking has been on the increase. The number of victims of domestic servitude referred to specialist services for trafficked people more than doubled in the last six months of 2012.1 In addition, there was a 25 per cent increase in the number of trafficked victims reported to the national referral mechanism for the same year.2


“Kalayaan and the lawyers they referred me to were great. I am glad justice is working. I wanted to make sure that my employers cannot treat anyone the way they treated me.”

- Domestic worker registered with Kalayaan


“The domestic worker depends on the employer for everything,” said Kate Roberts of Kalayaan. “(These new rules) don’t leave (domestic workers) with any option. They either have to remain in a situation of exploitation or leave and be in breach of their immigration status. They are driven underground or returned home and again become vulnerable to trafficking.”The Report of the Joint Committee on the Draft Modern Slavery Bill states: “In the case of the domestic worker’s visa, policy changes have unintentionally strengthened the hand of the slave master against the victim of slavery. The moral case for revisiting this issue is urgent and overwhelming. We call on the Government to take immediate action”. Kalayaan opposes the Government’s new proposals.



Fraueninformationszentrum (FIZ) FIZ Makasi Center in Zurich runs the only specialist centre in Switzerland for migrant women who are victims of exploitation, trafficking or violence, and those working in cabarets or the sex trade. FIZ provides them with crisis intervention, counselling and safe housing and helps them to obtain more secure residence status. It also accompanies them through criminal proceedings, helps them integrate into Swiss society or assists them to return safely to their native countries.


FIZ assists 200 women from more than 30 countries every year – of whom 50 per cent are between 17 and 27 years old. Impressively, 90 per cent of trafficking convictions in Swiss Courts can be ascribed to the testimony of women receiving support from FIZ. But the work is getting more intense as the complexity of the cases increases and women need even more support to recover. “Makasi got me out of a coma. I used to be dead inside,” explained a 25-year-old woman from Thailand.


The work of FIZ is complemented in the Swiss Romande area by the Centre Social Protestant (CSP) in Geneva, which hosts a free-of-charge and confidential helpline for victims of human trafficking. The Canton of Geneva is particularly exposed to the risk of forced labour, due to the presence of numerous diplomatic missions, some of the staff of which have been known to keep servants locked away in unpaid or low-paid domestic work positions. Two CSP lawyers staff a helpline every weekday afternoon and work in close cooperation with other institutions and organisations to support victims of labour exploitation and trafficking. In 2014 the CSP also sponsored an awareness-raising campaign on public transport to strengthen the possibility of detecting cases of trafficking in all sectors of work.

Thanks to the work of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, some 30,000 tomato-pickers in Florida have received an additional USD 14 million in wages. There is also a zero tolerance policy in place for forced labour, sexual assault and violence.

©  JJ Tiziou Photography


Source: Oak Foundation Annual Report


Year of publication: 2014




Oak Foundation commits its resources to address issues of global, social and environmental concern, particularly those that have a major impact on the lives of the disadvantaged. With offices in Europe, Africa, India and North America, we make grants to organisations in approximately 40 countries worldwide.


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