The Professional Role of Social Workers

Social workers can wear many of their hats in responding to conditions of human trafficking in the world. We are able to work nationally and internationally, on the micro level and on the macro level. Within the United States, social workers can push for effective legislation to assist survivors of trafficking in our country. These efforts can include both increasing awareness of the issue among citizens as well as providing effective services to victims, such as legal assistance, financial assistance, and help with food and housing. Social workers can also work for policies that punish those who exploit others into forced labor. In addition, these efforts can be focused on those who commit their crimes within our borders, as well as extraditing citizens who commit crimes in other countries.

In countries and areas from which people are emigrating or experiencing forced labor, social workers can use their education regarding community building and development to work to eradicate the conditions that support forced labor, including poverty and gender discrimination. By working with indigenous leaders to support the community, social workers will be better able to work in a culturally sensitive fashion that will meet the needs of the community. Social workers can also seek employment at agencies in other countries that assist victims of forced labor.

Pearson (2001) identifies the following conditions as ones that can contribute to situations of trafficking. Many of these fall under the purview of social work:

  • • Poverty and unemployment
  • • Globalization of the economy
  • • Feminization of poverty and migration
  • • Development strategies such as tourism
  • • Situations of armed conflict
  • • Gender-based discrimination
  • • Laws and policies on prostitution
  • • Corruption of authorities
  • • High profits; involvement of organized crime
  • • Cultural and religious practices

Pearson (2001) also states that when working against trafficking, it is more effective to work on strengthening the rights of those oppressed than to work on oppressive responses such as more restrictive immigration policies or more severe penalties. The first will help eliminate the conditions that drive forced labor, while the second relies on “catching” the person who is committing the crime. The second may also work against those who are victims of forced labor by restricting their freedom of movement and perpetuating the violation of their human rights. For example, the Philippines and Bangladesh barred female citizens of their nations from emigrating for work as domestic workers due to the abuse that former workers had suffered. However, this only served to limit the official freedom of movement and did nothing to eliminate the root causes of why women were emigrating for employment. Therefore, it did not stop the practice but only drove it underground. Once women were forced to resort to illegal means to gain employment, it increased their vulnerability rather than reducing it (Pearson, 2001).

An example of empowering oppressed people, thus reducing their vulnerability to forced labor, can be found in the case of the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) of India (discussed further in Chapter 7). Its goal is to assist self-employed women in South and Southeast Asia who face personal barriers such as high rates of illiteracy, having to care for multiple children, and living in slum conditions, as well as macro barriers such as exploitation by moneylenders and harassment by employers and officials. Today, SEWA is the largest single union in India and has founded a bank in order to provide micro-finance loans to its members. The bank also provides insurance for its members, while the union assists with child care and legal aid. Through methods such as these, the women are able to provide for themselves and their families without resorting to forced labor.

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