Skip to content Skip to footer

Beyond Survival: Organizing to End Human Trafficking of Domestic Workers

The main arenas of the trafficking debate have focused on trafficking of sex workers and children. Those who have been trafficked for the purpose of supplying low-cost domestic work are often overlooked.

Around the world, an estimated 52 million people are employed as domestic workers, providing services such as child care, cleaning, and elder care, in private homes. In the United States alone,official estimates indicate that about two million people are engaged in such work, but because of the large number of undocumented immigrants involved, the real number is likely much higher.

While there is not yet nationally representative data about trafficking and forced labor in domestic work, there are a number of smaller studies, as well as individual cases, that have shed light on the problem and helped shape an analysis of how and why exploitation manifests.

The main arenas of the trafficking debate have focused on trafficking of sex workers and children. Those who have been trafficked for the purpose of supplying low-cost domestic work are often overlooked. While there is a great deal of overlap between different types of trafficking, the specific forms of labor exploitation associated with domestic worker trafficking deserve more focused attention. This report provides an overview of the problem of domestic worker trafficking. It then draws on the experiences of NDWA and our allies to put forward detailed recommendations for action at multiple levels. .

Our overall view is that addressing this issue adequately will require a rights-based framework that tackles root causes and promotes basic immigration and labor rights. Therefore, our recommendations for governments— in the United States and around the world—cover a broad range of agencies and types of actions— from visa reform to more effective investigation of wage violations.

At the same time, we believe that nongovernmental organizations, with workers in the lead, are key to building the power necessary to end trafficking of domestic workers. Our recommendations for service providers and advocacy groups emphasize the need for leadership development among workers and survivors. Because human trafficking is a long-term structural problem, the recommendations in this report are only a first step. We look forward to working with allies inside and outside governments to build on these proposals for undoing the structural barriers to ending domestic worker abuse.


Government Accountability
United States Federal Government
Interagency Recommendations

1. Government agencies affiliated with the President’s Interagency Task Force on Human Trafficking should collaborate and should provide resources to worker centers and community-based organizations to develop anti-trafficking materials and proposals focused on labor trafficking in general, and domestic work in particular.

2. The new Interagency Working Group for the Consistent Enforcement of Federal Labor, Employment and Immigration Laws established as part of the President’s November 20, 2014 Executive Action on Immigration should include the Department of State (DOS) to ensure that migrant domestic workers and other workers who receive work visas through consular processing are not excluded from collaborative efforts to address low wage immigrant worker exploitation.

3. The Interagency Working Group should recommend that the Department of Homeland Security strengthen USCIS programs to ensure immigrant workers who are undocumented or who have temporary visas and may fall out of status during a dispute with an employer, contractor, or recruiting agent can maintain legal status and work authorization through deferred action, parole in place, or other appropriate measures.

4. In exploitation and trafficking cases where the workers are immigrants (with or without authorization), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) should not be the primary federal investigating agency because of the inherent conflict between ICE’s role in detaining and removing unauthorized immigrants and the overarching priority in these cases of serving immigrant victims of crime.

Department of Homeland Security

5. DHS should end partnerships with local and state law enforcement as these partnerships increase fear of police in low-income worker communities and prevent trafficked workers from seeking help.

6. DHS should train and mandate its agents to request continued presence for suspected victims of human trafficking, and should continue to improve screening procedures so that suspected victims are not arrested, detained, or deported.

7. The DHS’s United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) U and T visa adjudicators should receive additional and specialized training on victims of labor trafficking and workplace-based crime.

Department of State

8. Department of State (DOS) should improve and fully implement effective pre-departure and post-arrival programs for domestic workers and their employers, and include domestic worker groups.

9. DOS should establish annual in-person monitoring and exit interviews, and include domestic worker groups.

10. DOS should carefully monitor applications to ensure foreign missions are not misclassifying domestic workers under A-2 visas.

11. DOS should ensure meaningful consequences for diplomats and international officials and agencies who defraud or abuse domestic workers, including requesting waivers of immunity and suspending countries and agencies from the ability to bring more workers.

12. DOS should revise the B-1 and J-1 au pair programs to ensure that domestic workers employed in these programs receive similar protections- including the right to contracts and prevailing wages, and stays of removal if the worker pursues a criminal or civil case against an abusive employer.

Department of Labor

13. The Department of Labor (DOL) should consult with worker centers and community based organizations to understand the dynamics of domestic worker trafficking and exploitation, especially as it begins to certify T visas and expanded categories of U visas.

14. DOL should partner with worker centers to increase Wage and Hour Division capacity to investigate and respond to wage and hour violations experienced by domestic workers.

Department of Justice

15. The Department of Justice (DOJ) should prioritize human trafficking cases that domestic workers bring forward. Evidence shows that forced domestic work is likely one of the most prevalent forms of trafficking for labor in the U.S.

16. DOJ prosecutors should always request the restitution available to survivors under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act.

Victim Services Funding

17. Agencies, particularly Health and Human Services (HHS) and DOL, should receive adequate appropriations to provide services

18. Federal funding for victim services should address long-term needs such as housing and employment.

19. Victim services programs should promote collaboration and access to funds by community-based organizations that are well positioned to assist domestic workers.

Federal Legislation

20. Congress should reform temporary work visa programs with more mobility, transparency, oversight, and a pathway to citizenship.

21. Congress should increase the cap on U visas to reflect the actual need.

State Governments

19. State legislatures should pass Domestic Workers’ Bills of Rights

20. State Departments of Labor should investigate and certify U and T visas for victims of human trafficking and other serious workplace-based crime.

21. States should improve legal protections for low-income workers, including strong, accessible enforcement mechanisms that allow low-income workers in high-exploitation industries including domestic work to protect their rights and be compensated for employer wrongdoing.

International Governments

22. Governments should ratify and implement the International Labor Organization (ILO) Decent Work for Domestic Workers Convention (C. 189, and its accompanying recommendation (R201) and all relevant ILO Forced Labor instruments (Convention 29, Protocol 29 and its accompanying recommendation (R203). Governments should reform domestic policy with regard to sponsorship systems and domestic worker coverage under labor laws

23. Governments should reform domestic policy with regard to sponsorship systems and domestic worker coverage under labor laws, with particular attention to the freedom of association and right to organize.

26. Through multilateral and bilateral cooperation, reform labor recruitment and employment processes, including eliminating all recruitment fees for workers.

27. Trade agreements should include strong worker protections and include the rights of domestic workers to fair wages and appropriate workplace protections.

Building Power Together

Service Providers

29. Service providers should partner with community-based worker/immigrant rights organizations to enhance capacity and promote self-determination for survivors.

30. Service providers should engage in advocacy as allies alongside survivors and community-based organizations.

Advocacy Organizations and Partners

31. Advocacy organizations should collaborate with workers and survivors in the development of materials and policy proposals.

32. Advocacy organizations should share resources and funding with worker centers and survivor groups to build survivor skills and training to be advocates, and either hire directly or fund local groups to hire survivor organizers.

33. Embassies should partner with ethnic community-based organizations to provide emergency services and resources, and training for staff Given the specific problems faced by domestic workers employed by diplomats are common on a global scale, governments should mandate training and oversight for diplomats and consular officers who employ migrant domestic workers.

34. Advocacy organizations should take a comprehensive approach to human trafficking, and address root causes and related issues including immigration reform and labor rights.

35. Advocacy organizations should initiate participatory research with survivor groups, and involve survivors in uncovering problems and solutions that would most benefit survivors and prevent human trafficking and exploitation.

36. Labor unions should recognize and speak out on the prevalence of labor trafficking and train union leaders and members to identify possible trafficking and provide survivors with resources and support.

Human trafficking is a violation of human rights.

“My employers held my passport, prevented me from leaving the home alone, and forced me to sleep in the room with the baby rather than having my own bed. They paid me far less than I was promised when I left my home country. They told me that immigration police would come arrest me if I tried to leave.”

These are some of the most common things our member organizations have heard from domestic worker trafficking survivors over the years.

In 2013, along with our member anchor organizations already active in human trafficking work—Damayan, Adhikaar, and Casa de Maryland—NDWA launched our Beyond Survival campaign to build survivor leadership and promote a community organizing approach to ending human trafficking. The campaign seeks to support survivors of labor trafficking in becoming agents of change, bring their stories and voices into the main arenas of the trafficking debate that have historically been devoid of any discussion of workers’ rights, and develop a vision for transformative change.

We call our campaign “Beyond Survival,” as an indication that we are ready to move beyond the narrative of victimization towards true transformation, survivor-led advocacy, and policy change in the US and around the world.

​​Not everyone can pay for the news. But if you can, we need your support.

Truthout is widely read among people with lower ­incomes and among young people who are mired in debt. Our site is read at public libraries, among people without internet access of their own. People print out our articles and send them to family members in prison — we receive letters from behind bars regularly thanking us for our coverage. Our stories are emailed and shared around communities, sparking grassroots mobilization.

We’re committed to keeping all Truthout articles free and available to the public. But in order to do that, we need those who can afford to contribute to our work to do so — especially now, because we have just 2 days left to raise $33,000 in critical funds.

We’ll never require you to give, but we can ask you from the bottom of our hearts: Will you donate what you can, so we can continue providing journalism in the service of justice and truth?