Survivors of human trafficking often face a set of compounding obstacles that frequently prevent them from accessing and sustaining the employment opportunities necessary to be economically secure, heal emotionally, and reduce risk of future exploitation. First, they may face vulnerabilities initially exploited by traffickers such as poverty, homelessness, poor mental health, or a lack of social supports, and second, are the harms caused by trafficking, including trauma, a criminal record, and a diminished sense of self-efficacy. These obstacles are further exacerbated for survivors from marginalized communities for whom systemic racism and oppression have shaped and constrained the types of economic opportunities available to them. While many of the obstacles related to poverty, housing instability, lack of childcare, or transportation are common for job seekers and employees in low-wage occupations, trauma and exploitation that is directly related to work itself is unique to survivors of human trafficking.
Trauma can result in long-lasting physical, emotional, and cognitive impacts that– if not properly addressed–can affect how individuals relate to others, process information and their environments, and ultimately impede their ability to succeed at work. In the workplace, unaddressed trauma can result in diminished job performance, disengagement, and chronic absences which are often wrongly interpreted by employers as character flaws or a lack of ability or motivation, rather than common responses to trauma that are able to be mitigated with appropriate support. This lack of understanding often leads employers to address these behaviors with punitive measures that in turn push survivors out of the workplace and back into the very circumstances that put them at risk of exploitation in the first place.
Survivors of human trafficking also have a uniquely complicated relationship with work. Work was by definition abuse and exploitation, so it is not uncommon for work to cause the trauma associated with violence and abuse to resurface. This is further complicated by workplace power structures and the potential for unsafe and hostile work environments that can put survivors at further risk of trauma.
Despite these obstacles, survivors are resilient and able to make great contributions to the workplace. Employers must ensure that they do not contribute to the structures and practices that can cause survivors further harm and work to instead create environments in which all employees can thrive. To better support survivors on the job so that they remain employed, workplaces should:
1. Recognize the prevalence and impact of trauma. Employers must start by assuming that trauma is a factor among its workforce and seek to promote mental health just as they do physical health to help destigmatize care and help to validate traumatic experiences. Recognizing that employees bring their whole selves to work and seeking to eliminate obstacles to success is fundamental to a thriving workforce and workplace.
2. Respond by identifying and modifying policies and practices that lead to the exclusion of survivors and other marginalized populations as well as implementing trauma-informed, human-centered policies. In addition to establishing and implementing appropriate policies and practices, education and training programs are needed to help provide a common foundation of understanding around trauma and a framework in which all employees can provide appropriate support rather than cause harm, intentionally or not. Education and training programs also can help to normalize help-seeking so that employees do not seek help as a last resort or find themselves pushed out of the workforce due to the consequences of violence or exploitation.
3. Collaborate with victim service providers and other agencies that can provide wrap-around services to address the various obstacles employees face. This will not only help survivors of trafficking but all employees who have experienced trauma heal and thrive. Such partnerships can help inform effective policies and practices, develop robust education and training programs, and serve as experienced support services for employees.
While there is growing interest and desire to better support employees, workplaces lack the expertise and resources to successfully implement a trauma-responsive lens. To support employer efforts to development and implement trauma-responsive workplace policies and practices, funding is needed from the Department of Labor to promote promising practices, develop model collaborations, and provide the training and technical support necessary for employers to be successful.
Tags: Trauma, Employers, Collaboration, Training, Capacity-Building