Caridad* (not her real name) worked for the same family for four years, staying in an unfinished room on their rooftop accessed by a spiral iron staircase during rain, freezing, and hot weather. She would wake up at 5:30 am, shower in the bathroom inside the house to have breakfast on the table by 6:30 so she could raise and dress the three children.
Caridad worked until 8 or 9 PM, quietly scrubbing toilets and showers, picking up the children’s toys, vacuuming, sweeping, mopping, and dusting. She washed all the dishes, prepared meals, and kept the kitchen spotless. At least once a week, she would fall asleep on the TV room couch, babysitting while the parents went out. On Sundays, she took the first bus to her hometown, two hours away, to give her mother her wages and help with the chores and children. Her father died five years before. On Monday mornings, Caridad would return to work on the first bus.
Caridad earned below minimum wage without paid vacations, sick leave, or retirement. She ate in the kitchen sometimes with the gardener, whatever was leftover from the family meals or rice and beans.
When her mother got sick, she informed her patrona she would be out for a week. Caridad's mother worsened, so she stayed a few more days even though they needed the income.
When she returned to the house after 12 days, the patrona gave her thirty minutes to pack her stuff and leave. “You’re lucky I didn’t call the police," she threatened, “You had 6 rolls of toilet paper, shampoo, and two bars of soap hidden in your room.”
Caridad left without a chance to defend herself and was sad to leave the children. A few weeks later, a male friend found her another house to clean in exchange for half of her wages. That is how I met her; the “friend" brought her to our house.
President Biden has proclaimed January 2023 as “National Human Trafficking Prevention Month,” hoping to bring an end to human trafficking in the United States and around the world. The UN defines human trafficking as a global crime that trades and exploits people for profit. Traffickers use violence and fraudulent promises to coerce desperate and vulnerable people to perform labor, services, or commercial sex. Human trafficking occurs in every region of the world, targeting women and girls, but the recruitment of boys for forced labor is increasing.
What does this have to do with Caridad’s story?
The UN reports five types of human trafficking: Sexual exploitation, forced labor, domestic servitude, criminal exploitation, and forced marriage. Caridad’s story is an example of domestic servitude, but this doesn’t happen only in Mexico.
During my first year in the US, I worked as a teacher in a new charter school. My two children qualified for free and reduced lunch, and we were below the poverty line. I was fortunate to have kind coworkers and acquaintances pay me to babysit and clean their homes on the weekends and allow me to bring my kids. The US is a more egalitarian society, and I was never treated like Caridad, but it was exhausting work. Before the end of the year, I was lucky to find interpreting work that paid better.
I met Marcela (not her real name) in Washington State. When her Mexican patrones moved to the US, they paid a coyote to bring her. “I worked every day, from morning until night, and was paid $100 weekly. I shared a room with their two children,” she told me. After a year, Marcela enrolled in free English classes at the community college and discovered she was being exploited. A week later, she left the family, found a job and a room, and made a fantastic life for herself. “I was lucky,” she says, “if they had taken my passport, as many do, I wouldn’t be able to leave.” But most undocumented workers, domestic and laborers, aren’t that fortunate and, because of their status and lack of legal resources, are the targets of forced labor and exploitation.
We may not be able to dismantle the systems of human trafficking as individuals, but we can help in many ways. First, become informed. Educate yourself and others on what human trafficking looks like. We also must be brave and evaluate if we participate or benefit from it.
We may be unaware that we are enforcing human trafficking, like in the case of domestic servitude. It is easy to be against sexual, criminal, and labor exploitation, but it’s harder to see our actions contributing to the system when we are “helping” someone by giving them work. Conservative religious people might not understand forced marriage as human trafficking, as countries like Mexico, where domestic servitude is founded on racism and classicism, may be oblivious to how the current practice of domestic workers is a type of human trafficking.
How can we contribute to dismantling human trafficking in all its forms?
1. Become informed, learn to spot the signs, and educate yourself on resources.
2. Accept we are all biased and prejudiced in some way and do not allow it to guide your actions.
3. If you hire a domestic worker, research wages and pay above minimum wage. Draft a mutual agreement regarding vacations, sick days, child care, etc. We can't change our institutions unless we change our actions.
4. In some US states, there are agencies where you can hire undocumented workers that look out for their rights. Choose them when possible.
5. Recognize housework as valuable. Let go of patriarchal ideas that look down on child raising and domestic work.
6. Write to legislators and vote on measures that protect domestic workers and undocumented people in your home country and the world.
7. Support human rights and social justice organizations by donating money and time.
8. Find out more here