Food for Thought from FN Policy Co-Chair; Gonzalo Martinez de Vedia

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Beyond the Chains: Tuning Into the Full Spectrum of Human Trafficking

A pair of shackled hands. A body branded with a bar code. A woman
behind bars. These are the images I have to walk audiences back from
at every training we lead through the Human Trafficking Program here
at the Worker Justice Center of New York. For as much as global
awareness campaigns have gained on the shock value of this imagery,
and as much as the sensationalism does to galvanize communities, it
has done more to misguide them into stereotypes, myths, and damaging

Although there do exist tragic instances when persons are abducted and
sold for sex, or chained and beaten for labor, click-bait media and
relevance-seeking initiatives have a tendency to over-represent such
scenarios. These “worst of the worst” stories may command attention in
the short term, but only at the long-term expense of desensitizing
audiences to the more nuanced and at times banal reality of the
average human trafficking case.

Chains are much more likely to be psychological than physical. Rather
than brutal violence, trafficked persons more often face a brutal lack
of options. If audiences were to look for real life examples of the
images that come up on a Google search for “human trafficking,” they
might stare off at a neighbor’s darkened basement window while a
trafficked domestic worker walks out the front door, smiles and waves,
undetected, unconsidered in their everydayness. Never mind if that
person’s documents are being withheld, a debt is lorded over them, or
their family is under threat. Those considerations are beyond a
tabloid imagination.

Thought leaders in the field of trafficking have a responsibility to
challenge caricatures of the “victim in distress” and broaden our
expectations of where trafficking may surface: among laborers who
bring harvests to supermarket shelves, or a migrant crew ending a
12-hour shift at the county fairgrounds, or with an out-of-school
child behind the neighborhood restaurant kitchen door.

The outreach team here at the Worker Justice Center of New York has
never needed special access or privileges to approach the spaces where
we know trafficking to take place. We walk up to rural trailer doors
and small town businesses with the same right as every neighbor and
customer. The crucial difference is that we are ready to ask difficult
questions about power and control, personal finances, manipulation and

We are also ready to find answers that may not stand out or shock: a
series of false promises, a deal gone bad, a fear instilled over many
years. Rather than break chains or knock down doors, our staff is
trained to tune into the fine print, follow our intuition, and prepare
for the long-haul. At its best, our team gets to offer perspective and
options to people for whom both have run dry. With more grounded
awareness and media messaging, that could become the everyday work of
whole communities.
Gonzalo is a Human Trafficking Specialist at Worker Justice Center of New York