Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women

Human Rights
at home, abroad and on the way...


Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women

Human Rights
at home, abroad and on the way...

Events and News

WOFOWON: Promoting Women's Rights in the Informal and Entertainment Sectors

Women forum for Women Nepal (WOFOWON) is an organisation established by women working in informal and entertainment sectors. Starting with a small group of women, they now have more than 300 members. WOFOWON provides a space for women working in these sectors to come and share their issues, support each other and collectively advocates for recognition of their work and demand rights as workers.

Can you tell us briefly about how WOFOWON became an organization?

During the 10 years long civil war many people, including women and girls, migrated to the city for security and livelihood. For similar reasons, I too entered Kathmandu in 2059 (2002) and started looking for job. No one was ready to give me job accusing me of being a Maoist. It was difficult for us even to find an accommodation to rent. It was five of us that were together at that time. We sold all our jewellery but it was still not enough for us to survive in Kathmandu. We tried to find work in garment factories and finance companies but no one trusted us to give us work. We then started looking for jobs in restaurants and initially started work in cabin restaurants. With the help of some colleagues, I started working as singer in Dohori(local songs) restaurants. At that time, finding that job was like finally meeting God! That was the beginning of my life, I felt.

In the course of work, we found out about WOREC’s Chahari program which was established to provide women’s health consultation services and also had English language classes for women. I joined the program to learn English. I found it was not only about teaching language but also informed on women’s rights. I have always been vocal, even as child. When I see any injustice in society - I wanted to speak out against it. But in my real life, as a worker in a restaurant, there’s no institution for a women to lodge complaint when atrocities are committed against her. Police would conduct raid and arrest us, different people would physically beat us. I used to feel frustrated that there was no one to speak for us or hear what we had to say. Then I attended a capacity building training on women’s right conducted by Dr. Renu Rajbhandari of WOREC where we were motivated to fight for ourselves. This training gave us a new life. Nine of us working in restaurant and entertainment sectors then established Women Forum for Women Nepal with an aim to fight for women’s rights and establishing human rights for all. This is the first organisation in Nepal established by women working in entertainment sectors and since then we have been raising issues faced by women workers in these sectors. We are now 365 members strong. We are also included in trade unions and have two local committees. Our movement for the recognition and establishment of rights of women workers in entertainment sectors continues.

Tell us about the activities you conduct and why are those activities needed? How do you reach out to more women in this sector?

meeting member_-_WOFOWONAs we said, WOFOWON works for promoting and establishing labour rights and women’s rights for women workers in informal and entertainment sectors. We conduct public awareness raising campaigns, activities for women empowerment, organising campaigns for empowerment, and support and advocate for our rights.

In our programs, we highlight the issues of violence, labour exploitation, sexual violations and exploitations faced by women in informal and entertainments sectors and organise events to generate pressure for ensuring labour and human rights for these workers.

We have an outreach programme to reach out to all women working in these sectors. Through this outreach program, our members reach out to women workers in their work places to inform them about our organisation and its work. We encourage them to come visit our organisation to find out more about our work and be a member. Women members create an environment to support each other and to empower each other. We provide counselling services to women that have faced violence by their employers, co-workers, police, family or their society. If necessary, we provide referral. There are women that come for other services we provide such as health, legal assistance, psychological assistance and skill development trainings where we meet them on daily basis too.

We currently work within the three cities of the valley – Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur. We want to expand our network in other districts but for various reasons, we have not been able to do so at the moment.

You mentioned that you are included in trade unions. How do you work with trade unions and how do they support your work?

Only three years ago, none of the trade unions were ready to include women workers in these sectors in their unions. Since last year, 112 women have been registered as members of Free All Nepal Hotel, Casino and Restaurant Workers Union (NFHU). As I mention earlier, we have two local committees as well. The two committees are in Thamel and Gongabu areas around which most women workers are employed. These committees within their specific work areas address issues of women workers. There are 11 active members in these committees and these committees have strongly supported our demand for a safe social environment and ensuring human rights for our workers. Currently, the Union is supporting us in our call to the state for inclusion of informal and entertainment workers under the labour right framework. The Union also support us by providing us legal assistance and motivating us to unite for labour rights.

What is your biggest concern at the moment?

Our biggest concern is the physical and social insecurity of women workers. There is absolutely no security for women workers. When we return home from work at night, we worry whether we will reach our home alive. We worry about the police that are supposed to be there for security – do we have to face physical and sexual violence from them? We have to lie to our family and society about the nature of our work because our work is not recognised as “good work”. Until the state recognises our work and us as formal workers, these issues will continue.

Do you want to talk about the issue of safe migration of women in entertainment sectors? What do they need to migrate safely?

Safe migration as I understand is people moving from their original place to another with their own will, including from one country to another to migrate, for work or other purposes. It is right of every person to be able to migrate. Many women in the informal sectors are internal migrants. Some have come through friends, others through relatives. Some also migrated because of discrimination and violence they faced either in family or society. There is also a large number of women in this sector that have migrated India, China and gulf countries. If we look at it from positive way, women have taken big leaps in asserting their right to mobility and freedom which has challenged our patriarchal society. Women have learned to fight against all odds. The State should take this into account and establish safe migration rights of women. NGOs and other stakeholders also need to take account of women’s right to migrate safely.

For the safe migration of women, the current policies and regulations in place needs to be implemented effectively. Especially the policy regarding freedom of movement of women needs to be strengthened and implemented. Nepal should respect its international commitment towards economic, social and cultural rights of women. The government should appreciate women’s rights to freedom of movement and ensure that the movement, their migration is safe whether within the country or abroad.

Please tell us about your current advocacy efforts.

The main issue for now is ensuring a dignified environment for women working in restaurants and inclusion of women in informal sectors within the labour rights framework. We are demanding social security, end of social discrimination, end of culture of dehumanising women in entertainment sectors, ensuring labour rights and human rights for the women working in informal and entertainment sectors.

We are also actively working towards changing the perception of all stakeholders and society towards entertainment sector workers through various media outlets. We want them to not look upon us as ill of society, not have to hide our occupation from our family and society and establish this sector as a formal employment sector. We want a positive outlook for entertainment sector as one of the various forms of livelihood. We are working towards creating this awareness through public awareness campaigns via songs, dance and dramas utilising various media.

Ban Ying: Focus on Domestic Workers in Diplomatic Households

This year Germany became the ninth country in the world and second in Europe to ratify ILO Convention 189. In a country with an estimated 700,000 domestic workers, what does it mean in terms of realizing their rights for decent work conditions and pay? Ban Ying, our member in Germany talked to us about their assistance work for a specific group of migrant domestic workers, domestic workers for diplomats (DWDs,) that lie outside the purview of protection.

Can you tell us briefly about the work of Ban Ying?

Ban-Ying is the Thai term for "House of Women". Ban Ying was founded in 1988 and our focus is to work against trafficking in human beings and violence in the migration process. Ban Ying runs two projects: a counseling and coordination center and a shelter for women who have been victims of trafficking in persons. Both projects are run in Berlin, Germany.

The counseling and coordination center of Ban Ying provides support to victims of trafficking in persons at two levels: firstly, the practical level where the center offers counseling and psycho-social support to victims; secondly, the more theoretical, research, educational and political level.

At the practical level, the center offers counseling to people who are either directly or potentially affected by trafficking. Our counseling service is geared towards the individual needs of each woman. If the woman affected is a witness to a crime related to trafficking, the assistance also entails accompanying her to court. If the woman wishes to or is required to return to her country of origin, we assist her in planning her return. In our experience, this assistance helps reduce the danger of re-victimization to a great degree. Counseling is free of charge and a lawyer is available for legal advice.

In its more public sphere the center conducts research and runs educational and training programs, as well as awareness-raising campaigns, networking and advocacy for public policy initiatives. The advocacy work of Ban Ying is inspired by a gender and human rights approach.

This two level support-structure of Ban Ying results in a combination of theory and praxis and entails a key element for our work: on the one side, it allows us to gather information on specific needs of women who have been victims of trafficking in persons as well as appropriate working focuses; on the other side, it provides us with permanent feedback on the outcomes of our work.  

How did you decide on your focus on Domestic Workers for Diplomats (DWD)? Can you tell us briefly about the situation of DWDs in Germany?

Our work with domestic workers working in diplomatic households developed strongly when, around twelve years ago, the embassies moved from Bonn to Berlin. Since Ban Ying has a focus on women coming from South East Asia and many domestic workers working for diplomats come from this region (according to the German Protocol Department, in 2012 almost half of all the domestic workers working for diplomats came from the Philippines and Indonesia), the structures were available within Ban Ying to address this issue. At present, Ban Ying is the most specialized NGO in Germany in this field.

Our interest in working with these women was driven by the situation of extreme inequality existing in their work relationships. Domestic workers in diplomatic households are usually migrant women. While the domestic worker has an immigration status that is directly linked to her employer, the employer actually has quite a different, almost untouchable status. The employer enjoys diplomatic immunity on the basis of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. This convention ensures that diplomats and also their private residences are protected by immunity, making it effectively impossible for the domestic workers to take any legal steps against their employers when problems arise. In most countries they cannot sue them for unpaid wages, and the perpetrators cannot be taken to criminal court for assaults or be sued for pain and suffering even in cases of trafficking for the purpose of labor exploitation. Theoretically, the justice system of the diplomat’s sending state would be responsible, but we do not know of a single case where a domestic worker was successful in asserting her rights in the country of origin of her employer.

In short, the German situation is the following:

If a diplomat wants to bring a domestic worker to Germany, he/she has to inform his/her embassy, which makes the contact to the German protocol department. If this authority authorizes the hiring, the process for issuing the visa starts. Responsible for this process are the embassy and the protocol department, which means that the domestic worker is obligated to hand her passport to the employer. She is not involved in the visa issuing process at all.

The visa the domestic worker gets is absolutely tied to the employer. This means that her right to live in Germany is absolutely bonded to her working relationship to that specific diplomat. Even if there is abuse, even if there is mistreatment: the domestic worker will not be allowed to change her employer. You can imagine what this means in terms of power relationship.

Even though she is in Germany, the woman does not have the opportunity to meet the German authorities. In practical terms, the only person she has contact with in Germany is her employer (and his/her family). Nevertheless, there has been an improvement in the German system in this matter: now, when after one year the domestic worker needs to renew her visa she has to go personally to the protocol department to have an interview and to pick up the document. But we do not really know what the protocol department does when mistreatments are reported during this interview. In our opinion, this interview should have the meaning of exploring if everything is going well in the working relationship. And if abuse or mistreatment is detected, the protocol department should be able to make some options available for the domestic worker. These options should consider the chance to change employer, in order to make it possible for her to stay in Germany.   

What support services do you provide for the DWDs and other migrant workers? How do you provide language support in 27-languages? Where do you get that skill? Do you employ migrant workers?

Persons that have been victims of trafficking and are experiencing situations of abuse or exploitation can always come to us for counseling. On the one hand, we have open counseling for women from South East Asia every Wednesday. Women can come without making a prior appointment. Counseling is done by our social worker and the Tagalog or the Thai language mediator, who are both part of our team. On Wednesdays there is also a lawyer available for providing legal counseling. On the other hand, persons that have been victims of human trafficking can come to us for counseling from Monday to Thursday, for which we ask them to previously make an appointment by phone or by email. If the victim speaks a language that we do not have in house we contact a language mediator from our network, prioritizing women with a migration background.

So far we have provided counseling to women from 53 countries and four continents in their native languages. We also offer low-threshold group sessions and regular information meetings in Thai and Tagalog, where we provide information on legal and social issues with the assistance of external experts.

You mentioned earlier about protocol department as the only department that DWDs come in contact with.  How do you work with the protocol department to get access to DWDs?

Reaching out to domestic workers working for diplomats is a big challenge for counseling centers. These women live in the confines of the diplomatic household and do not have much contact with the outside world. Since they don’t have a regular visa status, they do not deal with the Aliens Department like other migrant workers would do, but only with the protocol department. So, this department should play a pivotal role in detecting problems in the working conditions of these persons. During the last years, Ban Ying has been collaborating with the protocol department trying to find ways to enhance the information channels for domestic workers. For this collaboration we rely on the readiness of the person in charge at the protocol department, which changes from time to time. Although we have had better and more difficult experiences during this time, generally speaking it is always a challenge for us to get a committed response from that department. Anyhow, as a result of this collaboration a brochure explaining the legal situation and containing the rights of domestic workers working in diplomatic households was printed. The idea is that this brochure is handed over to the domestic workers in their countries of origin before entering Germany. Also, last year the protocol department together with Ban Ying organized an information session for domestic workers working for diplomats. Regrettably, this meeting had a pretty low attendance given the large number of domestic workers that are registered in Berlin. We assume that those who managed to attend are those who do not have problems in leaving the household, so our challenge now is to improve our outreach. In this sense, one good practice aiming to reach a big number of domestic workers, which has been implemented in other countries like the US, is to make their attendance an obligation for the diplomat. We have shared this good practice with the German protocol department. We hope they will also acknowledge the effectiveness of this measure.

Can you tell us about your networking and collaboration with like-minded organizations ?  What are the good practices that you find within your network that have been helpful for your work?

There are NGO´s working in this field in other countries like Austria, Ireland, the UK, the Netherlands, Belgium and France. Collaborating with these organizations is pivotal to our work, since it allows us to compare standards and it provides us with guidelines for our advocacy work. There is also a focus set on this subject inside the office of the Representative and Coordinator for Combating Trafficking in Human Beings of the OSCE. In June I had the opportunity to participate in a workshop organized by them in Kiev. This was the second workshop the OSCE organized on this subject (the first one took place in Geneva one year ago) and the idea was to bring together protocol departments and NGOs from the different OSCE member states, in order to get them to share experiences and good practices. This workshop was very inspiring for me, as I got interesting insights on the situation in other countries and I realized how much there is to be done in the German system. Unfortunately nobody from the German protocol department attended the workshop, even though they had been invited.

Among the good practices presented in that workshop I would especially mention the mediation system recently implemented in Switzerland. If the Swiss protocol department finds out signs of trouble in the working conditions, it invites the parties to an interview in the presence of a mediator, who will try to help them in finding a solution. If a crime situation (human trafficking or other) is detected, the mediator will refer the case to the NGO network. Similarly, when the Austrian protocol department detects signs of mistreatment or abuse during an interview with the domestic worker, they contact the specialized NGOs who can provide her with counselling. One subject that was discussed in-depth during the workshop was the legal possibility of changing an employer when the domestic worker is experiencing bad working conditions. There was a consensus among the participants that this option is crucial for providing the domestic worker with a way out of abusive situations. Inexplicably, the German protocol department has an absolute prohibition on this subject: even if a domestic worker experiences situations of abuse, exploitation or mistreatment, she will not be allowed to change her employer. She will just have to leave the country.

What is the focus of advocacy for Ban Ying both at international as well as national level?

The situation of domestic workers working for diplomats is a relevant subject for our advocacy work. Through our collaboration with the protocol department some basic standards have been established. Sometimes - only if there is a substantial necessity and the victim specifically agrees- we have informed the media about our cases. This has proven to be an effective method to put some pressure on the perpetrators. For example, in March 2013 the case of an Indonesian domestic worker working for a diplomat of the Saudi Arabian embassy in Berlin (case Dewi Ratnasari) came to a good end, when the diplomat finally agreed to pay €35.000 to the woman. Other advocacy subjects we are focusing on are the Access to Justice for undocumented workers who have been victims of trafficking in human beings, as well as the ILO Convention 189 on domestic workers and its international standards in this field.

At the national level, Ban Ying participates in different networks existing in Berlin as well as in other places. We are part of the Commission for trafficking in persons (Fachkommission Menschenhandel), which brings together all relevant actors in Berlin. This includes the counseling centers, police, the involved ministries, etc.  We are also part of the Working group for Trafficking in Women (Arbeitskreis Frauenhandel), which brings together counseling centers at a Berlin level. Additionally, Ban Ying is a member of the nationwide activist coordination group combating trafficking in women and violence against women in the process of migration (KOK Büro), which  brings together counseling centers at a national level.

Internationally, Ban Ying was selected to be a member of the EU civil society platform against trafficking in persons, which was launched on May 31 in Brussels. We are curious about the effective impact this platform will perform in relation to EU public policies. 

Can you tell us about your activities around C189 in Germany or Europe? What message would you like to put forward pertaining to right of DWD and other migrant domestic workers?

Our advocacy work related to the ILO Convention 189 is ongoing. During the last months we have attended different panels regarding this subject. For example, the Berlin-Brandenburg representative office for the UN and the German ILO office invited us to comment on the extent to which the Convention can be used for domestic workers working for diplomats. We think that this discussion can be held with both a legal and a more political approach. Even though on the legal sphere there are pro and contra arguments, we think that once there has been international consensus that domestic work has to be further protected and socially recognized, there is no valid reason to let one specific group of domestic workers outside the scope of protection. Article 16 of the Convention states that all domestic workers, either by themselves or through a representative, have effective access to courts, tribunals or other dispute resolution mechanisms under conditions that are not less favorable than those available to workers generally. We see this as a generally applicable principle. In that sense, article 26 (4) of Recommendation 201, which refers to domestic workers working for employers with diplomatic immunity, sets the basis for advocating for decent work and access to justice for all domestic workers, without any exceptions.

NDWM: The Power of Organising Among Workers

A rough estimate suggested that there are currently 6.4million domestic workers in India, 71 percent of which is women making it the largest sector for female occupations in urban areas. However, although there has been some gain in getting domestic workers protected under the Sexual harassment act, India still lacks a comprehensive regulatory mechanism for this sector. We spoke to National Domestic Workers Movement (NDWM), our member in India that has been organizing and mobilizing domestic workers for the last 28 years about their approach, their successes and challenges.

In most countries, even if it’s legally possible to organize, because of the nature of domestic work, because of the invisibility of the work, where not many workers work together, organization of workers has been a challenge. How did NDWM make it happen, not just bring the workers together, but sustain the movement over the years in India?

It is always difficult to get in contact with domestic workers because they work individually behind closed doors. They are also usually opposed to each other because of the competitive job market and feel continuous pressure of job insecurity. In this kind of job, the workers have found that it is easy for the employers to replace them. Their experience has also been that they found it easy to take over the job of their peers or for their peers to replace them. The other factor is most domestic workers carry out their work in more than one household which means they have multiple employers, especially if they are part time domestic workers going from house to house, several houses in a day. As such, because of this, domestic workers have many employers ranging from very good to very difficult ones.

NDWM decided from the beginning to work together on common issues of all domestic workers such as the education of their children. The domestic workers are not able to send their children to school because they do not have proper or permanent houses. One of the issues that we took up was to motivate the parents to send their children to school. We talked to them about the negative impact of lack of education and how the future of their children will be negatively affected by not having education. The other issues NDWM tried to make the parents aware of was the threat of their children being trafficked if they did not have access to education and information.

Since 1985 when NDWM first started in Tamilnadu Dindigul, our approach has always been to ensure full participation of the target group to achieve success. Our focus has always been very clearly on the rights of domestic workers, their health and their further developments.  We started our outreach from the grassroots level, bringing them together and helping organize at that level. As mentioned earlier, because of the private nature of their work, it was difficult to reach out and bring them together. So we visited them at their homes, at places where they lived.

We have always believed in the power of organization among workers to bring about positive change. We supported organizing among domestic workers and formed domestic workers groups. We provided trainings and workshops so that they could see labour rights as their rights. We also organized leadership and other capacity building trainings.  It was a long and continuously developing process to organize and empower them. It took years but we have been able to achieve their full participation. There are leaders among the domestic workers now who take responsibility for the group.

Unionizing has been helpful in bringing powerful voices and given power to their voices. Today, there are nearly 10 States in India where the domestic workers are unionized.  They still need support and trainings to fully take up the unionization and we are working together with them.  Once national level federation is formed the domestic workers may be more recognized for their active role in it.  This year in October we will form the National Federation of the Domestic Workers.

We also work with child domestic workers. We have been involved in the rescue of child domestic workers, accommodating them in our shelters and enrolling them into main stream education.  We conduct awareness raising activities for the parents through activities such as movie screening about child domestic workers and the issues they face. We have held many workshops. Currently we have shelter homes in 5 States for the child domestic workers where they are given shelter, education, counseling and other support. We also help and facilitate children to form into groups to advocate for their rights.  

 What have been your major achievements in the last almost 3 decades?

As mentioned earlier, our achievements are evident in the formation of domestic workers unions in various states of India. But, our first and most important achievement is achieving the dignity of the persons and the work of domestic workers –now domestic workers have an identity.

We have also been successful in getting many States to include domestic workers under Minimum wage act 1948 ensuring that domestic workers get minimum wage. There are few States that now have welfare board for domestic workers. We are also actively working towards the National policy that would institutionalize the right of domestic workers. NDWM is also promoting the ILO Convention that gave way for many countries and Governments to look at domestic workers as workers.

What has been the motivating factor for the movement for the last 27 years?

Domestic work is work hence the workers have the labor rights of like any other workers – this is what we have been advocating for. Today millions of domestic workers have been able to achieve that rights, they have been able to get their dignity as human beings, recognition of their work, their identity because of the continuous involvement of the Movement.   The domestic workers today are able to stand for their rights, they have gained the bargaining power to demand from their employers the right wages, holidays and bonus that are rightfully theirs. It is because of their mobilization that today in many States, they have gained legal protection under the Sexual Harassment Act and they have Welfare Board for domestic workers.

This has been possible through the collective solidarity of the domestic workers across the country. It is the result of the perseverance demonstrated by domestic workers to keep on moving ahead without which working with the government and to reach where we have today would not have been possible.  Our motivation and inspiration also comes from seeing the new life that the children in domestic work have got through our shelter homes where they are given accommodation and access to education.  We draw our inspiration also from those children who participate in our children’s program to come together and take initiative to decide and plan their own project activities.

How have you been able to support migrant domestic workers, international and national migrants? Are there different issues faced by migrant domestic workers?

The cases of migrant domestic workers are more complicated than those domestic workers that are within their own country. And as news coverage show, the abused migrant domestic workers, particularly in the gulf also come from India. They are lured to go there with promises of good future. The situation in their homes works as a push factor. The live-in situation of the workers makes them vulnerable to exploitation. The Kafala system which does not allow the workers  to change employers is one of the most exploitative practices. The abuse they face can be non-payment of wages, low payment of wages, physical, sexual, verbal and mental abuse, retention of their documents and long working hours.

NDWM provides pre departure training for migrating domestic workers at the Protectorate of Emigrants office in Chennai and at the Village level too to prepare inter and intra country migrant domestic workers for situations at destination sites. The pre-departure trainings for the prospective migrant workers include information on sending and receiving country details, handling of passports and visas and understanding of contract s. The information covers everything that is important to know during the entire period starting from emigration  till she reaches her destination. We also include important information such as address  of the embassy  and any other organisation.

We also take up the cases of abuse. We conduct crisis intervention when they face discrimination and exploitation in the destination countries through our contact in India and also with our networks in destination countries. We have links with Migrant Forum Asia members that are based in destination countries. We work closely with them to provide necessary support for the victims in destination countries. We also lobby with the embassy of that particular country. 

What are your biggest challenges?

The biggest challenge is the opposition we face from government authorities and all those in power, including the employers of domestic workers. The government does not show much concern over the rights of the domestic workers.  We have submitted many memorandums and have been lobbying and advocating to improve situation of domestic workers, but despite all this, the response we often get is silence.

NDWM will be participating at the High Level Dialogue on Population and Development to be held in New York this October. What is your message?

Our primary aim to be at the high level dialogue is to raise issues of the migrant and domestic workers and to demand space for civil societies to express their voices at the HLD.  We want to influence the governments to address issues of migrants as human rights issues. 

We want to raise the issues of domestic workers and highlight that domestic work is work and like all workers, they are entitled to all labour rights.

We would like to know about your collaboration with other likeminded organizations, such as your association with labour rights groups? How have you built and maintained such collaboration and how has that strengthened the movement?

Apart from GAATW, NDWM is also a member of Migrant Forum in Asia at international level.   We also have networks with different trade unions at state and national level in India. As mentioned earlier, the networks help us to extend our services for migrant workers in destination countries. These networks help us to raise our common demands like the rights of the domestic workers and migrant workers effectively and strongly at state, national and international levels.  Bringing all the organizations working for the rights of domestic workers helps us to have strong collective voice to raise our issues with the Government to put forward demands of the domestic workers and migrant workers together.

SWAN: Outreach Programs for Migrant Sex Workers

Although selling of sex is legal in Canada, virtually every related activity is criminalized making it unsafe and jeopardizing health and safety of sex workers, not to mention the violation of their human rights. SWAN Vancouver Society has been working to provide culturally appropriate and language-specific support, education, research, advocacy, and outreach for immigrant, migrant, newcomer and trafficked indoor sex workers.  Alison Clancey explained SWAN’s works and experiences.

You have taken up the Coordinator’s position since August last year but have been involved with SWAN for a long period. Can you tell us about the work of SWAN and how it has evolved over the year(s)?

In 2002, we began providing outreach to women working in massage parlors as part of a pilot project in a non-profit HIV/AIDS service organization that researched sex workers’ access to healthcare and vulnerability to HIV/AIDS. During the project, we recognized that the issues the women were dealing with were much broader than HIV and sexual health. The concerns that were most important were immigration, criminal matters relating to prostitution laws and exiting sex work. At the end of the project, we recognized how important it was to continue outreach and SWAN was established.

Our outreach program over the years has provided newcomer, migrant, immigrant and trafficked women engaged in indoor sex work with safer sex supplies; information and referrals to health, social, employment and legal services; and individual and systemic advocacy. We publish SWANzine (SWAN’s newsletter) three times a year to answer questions that arise during outreach, provide community information and resources and update changes to laws and policies that affect indoor sex work.

A key part of SWAN’s work is bringing forward the opinions of racialized women who engage in indoor sex work into public policy. In the past year, SWAN has been involved in policy change at the municipal level by expanding understandings of sex work, and in doing so the dialogue has become more inclusive of the complexity and diversity of the women we support. To provide context to the reforms to sex work policy and approaches currently being undertaken, the 1990s and early 2000s saw the serial murder of a number of street-based survival sex workers in Vancouver. Realizing this tragedy can never occur in our city again, a number of stakeholders including sex workers, sex work support organizations, provincial and municipal governments, law enforcement and community organizations among others have come together to develop and implement strategies that will make Vancouver a safer and healthier city for sex workers. While Canada’s prostitution laws are legislated at the federal level (currently these laws are being challenged at Canada’s highest court for being unconstitutional), there are a number of policy changes that can be made at the municipal level to provide safer work spaces and increased access to community information, resources and supports. SWAN is pleased to be part of this progressive change in the City of Vancouver.

The Vancouver Police Department recently released the Sex Work Enforcement Guidelines 2013. How do you see the impact of the guidelines in the daily lives of sex workers?

As part of the progressive change taking place in Vancouver, in 2013 the Vancouver Police Department (VPD) released a new sex work policy, Sex Work Enforcement Guidelines. The policy represents an important shift away from criminalizing sex workers towards ensuring sex workers have access to police protection. The policy states that the VPD’s priority is to ensure the safety and security of sex workers, and all cases of violence or abuse of sex workers will be treated as serious criminal matters. The policy also states the police should not harass, target, arrest or intimidate sex workers for doing sex work.

SWAN is encouraged by and commends the efforts of the VPD who worked collaboratively with sex workers to develop and implement this ground breaking policy which can serve as a national and international model.

However, we remain cautious. The VPD was mandated by the provincial Missing Women’s Commission of Inquiry (which examined law enforcement’s failure to investigate the cases of the missing and murdered sex workers) to undergo anti-oppression training with a focus on sex work. To date this has not occurred.  In the absence of such training that will ensure meaningful changes in terms of sex work-related policing practices and philosophy, the sex workers we support have not yet reported improvements in their interactions with police. It is our hope that given time, relationships between sex workers and the police will be built and an environment will exist wherein sex workers will be able to report violence and victimization and their reports will be treated in an equitable manner to other members of society.

The USTIP report 2013 has put Canada on Tier 1 list meaning Canada meets the minimum standards established by law to combat trafficking. What is your take on it?

The USTIP Report does not reflect the realities we see on the ground as a community-based organization with over a decade of experience supporting sex workers and women who are trafficked.  According to the report, “foreign women, primarily from Asia and Eastern Europe, are subjected to sex trafficking as well, often in brothels and massage parlors”.  In the past few years, we have not encountered any trafficked women working in massage parlors.

While officially Canada may be meeting the minimum standards, it is our view that anti-trafficking mechanisms, in particular anti-trafficking funding, are not always evidence-based but are rather informed by discourse reproduced in publications such as the USTIP report. Our experience has shown that local organizations claiming to work on trafficking issues are often anti-sex work, conflating trafficking for sex work. It is also our experience that these organizations tend to get the most funding to support their “anti-trafficking programs.”

In the current environment, what are the major demands of migrant sex workers in Canada?

The most frequent request we get is to connect women to respectful health care providers. Occupational stigma affects the quality of services migrant sex workers receive in mainstream health care. Oftentimes there are also language barriers. To overcome these barriers to health access, SWAN connects women to our network of health care providers who understand sex work among im/migrant women and who we know offer non-judgmental health supports and services.

Proyecto Esperanza: Providing Assistance to Victims of Trafficking

A recent research suggested that Spain is the second highest country to have the largest number of victims of human trafficking in Europe. The relative affluence of Spain in comparison to its neighbouring countries makes it an attractive destination for migrants, and a flourishing base for human trafficking. Proyecto Esperanza in Spain discusses its effort to provide assistance to victims of trafficking and their advocacy effort to strengthen the anti-trafficking mechanism that ensures protection of rights of the victims in Spain.

Can you tell us briefly about Proyecto Esperanza’s program on anti-trafficking?

Proyecto Esperanza was founded in 1999 with a group of volunteers along with Congregation of Sisters Adorers. Since then it has grown into a multi-disciplinary team of professionals such as lawyers, educators, cultural mediators and psychologists. We understand human trafficking as a violation of human rights.

Proyecto Esperanza has a two-pronged approach to carry out its work - Direct Assistance and Advocacy and Outreach.

Direct Assistance is the core work of PE. It is based on what we call a Personal Project. We work together with each woman that comes to us to detect their individual needs and strengths, to understand their short term and long term goals. We work with her to identify what strengths she has and in what areas she may need support. Based on this assessment, with her participation, we create a plan of action to reach her goals and work with the other professionals both within PE and outside. Through the different departments at PE, we offer legal support, employment training and language classes, psychological support as well as facilitate access to the national health system and public integration programs. We do not take a cookie cutter approach to this process but instead it entirely depends on each individual and the reflection of her specific needs. Our motto is that each woman is the most important actor in her life. The women are the main actors in our Project and the work we do.  We try to empower them and support them in relying on their strengths to reach their goal.

This Personal Project has three different phases:

The 1st phase is the recovery phase, which lasts between 15 days and 2 months. This is the initial stage in which survivors have often just left the trafficking situation. During this period we offer support for  physical and emotional recovery. We support them to understand their situation and the context in Spain, inform them of their rights and give them support in making decisions, such as staying in Spain or returning to their home country. If they decide to leave Spain and return to their country, we coordinate with International Organisation of Migration to facilitate their repatriation. If they stay in Spain and choose to continue receiving support from PE, we continue to work together on their Personal Project.

Women in this first phase can opt to live in our recovery shelter, where basic needs are provided for in a safe environment including a 24 hours support system.

When short term goals are met in the first phase, women move on to the second phase, or consolidation phase in which women continue to work on their physical and emotional recovery in addition to their integration into the society and work force. They update their Personal Project reflecting on the goals that they have met and create new goals based on their experiences. Women remain in this phase for about 6 months.

Women can again opt to live in the shelter that corresponds to this phase. A shelter in which women begin to have more independence but can still rely on a safe environment and 24 hour support system of educators.

Once goals are met in the second phase, women move to the third phase or the Autonomy phase, in which they are much more independent and support is offered on a more occasional basis. We still provide shelter however in the form of independent apartments. There is an educator but 24-hours a day and they begin to contribute minimally to living costs. .

Other support offered to facilitate their physical and emotional recovery and integration is mediation with doctors and the public health system. We help women look for responses to any concerns they might have regarding their health issues. Our psychologist provides them psychological support one on one, and when they are ready, in a group. Our lawyer and legal department supports survivors in accessing their rights as victims of a crime by arranging necessary documentation, residency and work permits, and support in pressing charges and in court if their cases go to trial. The Employment and Social integration department arranges for them to take Spanish classes if necessary, employment training, provides employment skills, such as interview skills. This department also acts as a mediator between potential employers and trafficking survivors and offers information on rights as a worker.

In our Advocacy and Outreach work, we work with various organisations, including government authorities. We have been actively involved in lobbying for the development of legislation and policy practices with a human rights based approach to address anti-trafficking. We have worked with media, conducted research, attended and spoke at various conferences, forums and social networking to advocate for human rights based approach to anti-trafficking policies.

We conduct trainings on identifying potential trafficking victims and on human rights based approach to providing specialised assistance for various organisations, government officials, law enforcement authorities, social services and other such firsthand responders. This capacity building of authorities helps them to identify trafficking victims. When they suspect someone of being trafficking victims, because of our work and relationship with the authorities, they contact us. 

Do you also work with male victims of trafficking?

Our identification department is the one that comes in contact with human trafficking survivors when we are working with the first hand responders – such as law enforcement authorities, other organizations or social services. These first hand responders, as I mentioned before, get in touch with us when they detect signs of trafficking in women. We visit these victims wherever it may be, including at immigration detention centres, police station, the airport, social services, etc. We interview the person, offer them the appropriate support and advocate for their rights often times mediating with authorities. At this point, we can occasionally come in contact with a male victim. Although we do not offer comprehensive support services to males we do provide support for their immediate need and refer them to organisations that can give them more comprehensive support.

You have supported many women through direct intervention providing them shelter, psychological and legal supports. In your experience, how do women find themselves in this kind situation? What pushes women into the situation of being trafficked?

There are myriad of reasons through which women find themselves in the situation of trafficking. Most of the women being trafficked in Spain are from Eastern Europe, Sub Saharan Africa and Latin America. The majority find themselves in this situation seeking to migrate for better opportunities and improve their lives. Many of them come from a poor economic background in their origin countries, so there is the economic need. But this is not always the case. There are also many cases in which women have a stable economic situation in their home country but wish to improve their life conditions through a better paying job or study. Some of them come to Spain as students.

Another driver that we have detected is gender discrimination in origin countries which results in the lack of educational and economic opportunities for women. There are often limited jobs that are available for them. Then there is the family pressure of complying with traditional gender roles such as getting married and having children and at times against their will. They may also be victims of gender or domestic violence. These situations force women to seek out alternative opportunities.

The other issue that encourages women to migrate is family pressure – what we call, family migratory project. Sometimes the women have their own children or have younger siblings. They feel the responsibility to provide economic support for the younger siblings or their children. Therefore they migrate to send money to their families.

It is difficult for women from humble backgrounds in Eastern Europe, Latin America or Africa to have the amount of money needed and the knowledge to manage the visas and complicated paperwork necessary to migrate to Spain. This difficulty together with the situations mentioned above, drive women to take the “benefit of the doubt” when someone comes along promising a work opportunity for them in Europe. These persons are often close to them or known in their village, such as a boyfriend, neighbour, close or distant relative, or a friend of a friend.  Although they may be a bit suspicious of the motive and may be aware that trafficking exists, but their hope drives them to take the risk thinking, “it won’t happen to me” and trusting in the future that they are promised. The majority of women decide to migrate with their own free will. There are rare cases of trafficking by kidnapping or abduction.

Although women decide to migrate voluntarily, trafficking victims are deceived. The deception can be in the kind of work they believe they would be doing. Some women are told that they will be domestic helpers or other professions, and then are forced into prostitution. Other women knowingly come to work in prostitution but they are deceived in the conditions of this work. They find themselves in exploitive conditions, for instance they must hand over the majority of the money they earn, they have no say on how many clients they serve a day, how many hours, the use of protection, etc.   

As a destination country for migrant workers from Latin America, Eastern Europe and African countries, how do you see the role of recruitment agencies in Spain? Have you handled cases of ‘debt bondage’? If so, what actions were taken to help the victims?

Recruitment agencies do not have a big role in trafficking or migrating into Spain. Women usually rely on more informal channels to come to Spain.

There are many cases of debt bondage in Spain. You can see trafficking victims that can freely move around, they are not confined to any place, and there are no visible signs of control over them. However, they are controlled and enslaved by the large debt, such as 45,000€, that they are forced to pay back to their traffickers often times through their prostitution or other services. In many cases, trafficking victims normalize these debts, seeing them as the price to pay to migrate to Spain, the price to their freedom. They think they can pay it off and then they will be free. However, with debt bondage, these debts often fail to decrease – they keep mounting up or after a victim has paid the full amount, the traffickers increase the amount owed. This critical point, when women realise that the debt can never be paid off, drives them to escape as they no longer see the end of their exploitation.

We work with women to explain and inform them that these “debts” which puts them in a situation of debt bondage is crime and considered not only human trafficking but also slavery according to the United Nations Convention on the Abolition of Slavery. However, they must make the decision to stop paying the debt when they are ready. It must be on their time, not on ours. Usually for the women, it is fear for the safety of their family back home that impedes them from taking action and drives them to continue paying the traffickers. Members of the trafficking criminal network often live near the victim’s family or know where the family lives. They threaten harm on the family. We do not pressure them to press charges or stop paying the traffickers until they are ready. Whatever their decision, we respect it.

The legal framework protecting trafficking survivors is still complicated and difficult for survivors to access, so we serve to bridge the gap that exists between trafficking survivors and the law. We help them access their right to apply for residency and work permits, compensation, recover passports confiscated by the criminal networks, collaborate with law enforcement authorities, obtain witness protection mechanisms, etc.   

In your experience, what are the major demands of trafficking survivors?

The women want to recover their lives, they want their liberty back.

They want to be able to work – which in many cases is a priority for them, since economic opportunity is the most common motive for their desire to migrate. They want to be able to work often times to send money back to their family. Because it is often the welfare of their family back home for which they had decided to leave their countries. So they want to be able to support their family back home. They feel an urgency to send this money because their families were expecting it and they were unable to do so while they were in the situation of trafficking.

The other issue is security. On one hand for survivors to be safe from the traffickers and on the other hand for the safety of their family back home. Often times the traffickers back in their country know the victims’ families. So their concern is also the safety of their family back home.

Although not all, many trafficking survivors entered Spain illegally. Therefore, security also means being safe from deportation and having the right to reside in Spain. They fear being hassled and re-victimized by police having to explain again their story. They are under constant threat of being deported. They want legal residency in Spain to feel safe and be able to work here. They often have a founded fear of reprisal from traffickers in their country or origin or risk of re-trafficking.

Through intervention we also encourage psychological and health support, language and job training, as well as goal setting through what the Personal Project explained earlier.   

Do you want to tell us a little about the research work Proyecto Esperanza has conducted?

We have always placed women, the survivors, at the centre of all our work. We recently did an Impact Evaluation investigation on our work where we talked to survivors about our work. We gave them the opportunity to tell us about what work and activities have worked for them, what did not work, what can be done better and what they would like to see more of. We contacted women who received support in the past to see where they are now. Are they integrated into the society, have jobs, have the same opportunities as any other immigrant? We also contacted some survivors who were repatriated. We relied on external consultants to evaluate the interviews and questioners.

We have also conducted research on how effective policy implementation has been on the ground, if protection policies are actually benefitting the victims. This project includes research on best practices regarding the implementation of anti-human trafficking mechanisms in other countries in Europe and around the world. Spain has been a pioneer regarding its policies on Domestic Violence, but on anti-Human trafficking practices, we have been far behind. So we work together with other countries and networks, such as GAATW to collect European and global best practices in order support our perspective – to demonstrate to the authorities that what we are advocating for is necessary for human rights protection.

These are just two examples among many other research projects that we have conducted through the years.

Can you tell us briefly about your political advocacy and your effort for changes and improvement in legal framework to address trafficking? 

When we started in 1999, there was no law against trafficking in Spain. Trafficking was not recognised as a criminal activity under criminal code. There was no protection mechanism for victims. Victims that were detected were issued a deportation order. If the crime was persecuted it had to be under secondary crimes, such as forced prostitution or violence

We had to raise awareness on the prevalence of trafficking in Spain and advocate for the need to create a legal framework to address this issue. At that time the focus was on illegal immigration and border immigration controls. We needed to shift that towards the fact that trafficking occurs in Spain and we need to protect the victims whose rights are violated within our country.

Now, human trafficking is correctly codified as a crime in criminal code. There are favourable protection mechanisms referenced in the immigration law, including the right to a reflection period, the right to reside in Spain and not be issued a deportation order while one’s case is being studied, as well as the right to apply for residency and work permit for collaboration with authorities or for the personal circumstances of the victim. Our focus now is in the implementation of these protection mechanisms and ensuring that survivors actually have access to these rights. Although no one disagrees that human trafficking is a crime and victims deserve protection, there are still difficulties on the ground in the effective implementation of the law. Our work is to take this information back to the policy makers and appropriate authorities.

Our advocacy work follows a type of cycle as it begins with direct intervention on the ground with survivors. Based on their experiences, needs and difficulties we make recommendations to policy makers and authorities. When policies and protection mechanisms are passed, we go back to our work on the ground to see if they are having a real impact on the survivors and if they are being implemented. After this analysis we take this information once again to the authorities advocating again for the necessary improvements, additions and implementation of these laws.

As previously mentioned, the protection mechanisms are referenced in the immigration law. In 2013 our priority is to advocate for a comprehensive anti-trafficking structure, such as a comprehensive law against trafficking, that would include national standards and clear protection for all victims, not just those who are undocumented. 

Strategic Thematic Direction

During 2011-13, through our Power in Migration and Work thematic programme, we engaged more directly with the migrant rights and labour rights movements. During 2014-2016 our work will build on the work of previous years; we will continue to push for a human rights based approach in anti-trafficking policies and practices.  We will also deepen our engagement with the issue of migration and labour.

The three thematic strategic issues outlined below are continuations of our work during 2011-13.

ACCOUNTABILITY Increasing the accountability of all anti-trafficking stakeholders involved in the design or implementation of anti-trafficking responses, towards the persons whose human rights they purport to protect.

ACCESS TO JUSTICE Broadening spaces for trafficked persons and migrant workers to practice their human rights by improving access to justice and combating all forms of discrimination that impact women’s ability to exercise their human rights as they relate to trafficking.

POWER IN MIGRATION AND WORK Centring an analysis of women’s power in their labour and migration to better assess migration and labour policies’ impact on women, and to work towards labour and migration processes that reflect migrants’ needs, aspirations and capabilities.