Do Your Corporate DEI Initiatives Help Survivors of Human Trafficking?

September 8, 2023

Imagine launching a job search on Linkedin to secure your first “real adult” job—except the formative educational years of your adolescence and early adulthood have been stolen from you. Most would agree that the job search process can be daunting and anxiety-inducing for anyone. When those feelings are compounded with years of immense trauma as survivors of human trafficking have endured, the pathway to safe, gainful employment is even more complex. 

Over recent years, we’ve seen greater emphasis placed on corporate DEI initiatives, but do these practices include all marginalized groups? Based on the recent National Economic Justice Report findings, human trafficking survivors are still orbiting outside of corporate work culture margins, facing immense barriers to sustainable career opportunities.

Barriers to safe employment for trafficking survivors include but are not limited to:

  • Disruption to education; both during the time of being trafficked and due to economic hindrances
  • Psychological/Physical health complications due to trauma
  • Criminal records that deter hiring managers 
  • Lack of reliable transportation to and from work
  • Missing identification (i.e., state ID/driver’s license, permanent address)
  • Limited access to technology (i.e., no smartphone, limited internet access to search or apply for jobs)
  • Lack of proper work attire/professional clothing 
  • No résumé building experience or “résumé worthy” experiences 
  • Little to no interviewing experience and a lack of professional networks that can connect them to entry-level jobs 
  • Triggering workplace microaggressions and power dynamics that can hinder professional advancement

Human trafficking survivors need more than rescue and rehabilitation services to sustain a life beyond trafficking. They need jobs with good pay and opportunities for growth and advancement. Economic marginalization is the primary driver of human trafficking, and barriers to sustainable career-advancing opportunities are a key reason why so many women feel forced to return to lives of exploitation once they are out. This is why creating pathways to safe work is the heart of Nomi Network’s mission. 

Earlier this year, Nomi Network contributed to the First National Economic Justice Report: Beyond Workforce Development for Survivors of Human Trafficking, conducted by the Avery Center. The research was gathered from 102 survivors who shared their experiences integrating into the workforce after exploitation.

To gain a more in-depth understanding for their employment barriers, let’s break them down by phases in the job application process:

Barriers During The Search:

Limited Access to Gainful Employment Opportunities

85% of jobs in the U.S. are found through networking, and 70-80% of job listings are never made public. We all know that the best career opportunities often come from who you know versus what you know. Since most survivors lack a professional network, they are limited to finding work in lower-paying service industries or submitting applications online amidst hundreds of other applicants.

Imposter Syndrome Caused By Gaps in Education, Work History, and Criminal Records

“I had no work history from 15 to 24. So, even when I was applying to places, they weren’t hiring me because I was so much older and had no experience. And that brought up a lot of questions as to why, and so I had to end up disclosing my trauma, my homelessness status, all types of stuff.”

“It’s so challenging to find good paying jobs with having a record- even if it’s a misdemeanor.” 

Imposter syndrome and failure to meet requirements like associate’s or bachelor’s level education can deter many survivors from ever applying to a job they desire. Also, many survivors have been unjustly criminalized for prostitution or drug abuse charges that they were forced to commit by their traffickers, which further harms their job candidacy potential.

Non-livable Salaries

“The availability of jobs that actually pay a livable wage in my area is rare.”

Finding a job listing where survivors meet criteria doesn’t mean the salary covers living costs within the same community they live in, especially if they are raising children. Non-livable wages are another deterrent for many survivors during the initial search process. Employers looking to serve this community must offer adequate compensation for a survivor to truly thrive. Otherwise, it can be emotionally and fiscally tempting for these individuals to return to traffickers, who were able to cover their basic necessities more easily than a minimum wage job. This type of innovation requires HR departments and DEI executives to build salary structures that create a more equitable workforce.

Barriers During The Application:

Application Overwhelm Amidst Readjusting to Society

“I think that when you are asked without even knowing who was gonna read this paperwork– it’s demeaning to a person to have to explain something like that to a piece of paper. I feel like that should be explored with a person in an in-person conversation. It gives more room for discrimination.”

According to the report, survivors feel overwhelmed by the laboriousness of the job application process, especially while juggling therapy, court, childcare, family dynamics, transportation, and housing challenges needed to obtain stability after exiting a life of being trafficked. When applying for jobs, survivors are concerned about checking the box on questions regarding criminal records or explaining work history and education gaps. 

Workforce Overreliance on Higher Education

“I am more than what is on a piece of paper, whether it reflects me in a positive or negative light, a whole person–and that doesn’t come out just on a background check or resume that you’re a whole person.”

The workforce’s overreliance on higher education is another economic justice issue that hinders survivors’ economic empowerment. 

Lack of Work Experience for Confident Resume-Building

“I feel like I don’t represent my power and talent well on paper.”

“I want more job experience in general and experience that I can be proud of rather than just trying to fill up space.”

Many survivors also feel immense imposter syndrome regarding their resumes. With the workforce’s emphasis on steady, consistent work experience, it can be tough to highlight their strengths with all of the time gaps. 

Barriers During the Interview Phase

Lack of Transportation, Professional Attire, and Childcare

Physical barriers due to economic vulnerability are often initial barriers in the interview process. In our work, we’ve seen that our clients’ best job opportunities are often outside their local neighborhoods. The interview process can be very challenging if reliable, safe transportation is lacking. Professional attire and adequate childcare services are also contingent upon socioeconomic resources. When a mother exits a life of trafficking, she often must leave behind everything and everyone she previously knew to avoid getting drawn back into that world. When familial and personal communities are lacking, childcare can feel unattainable–making a work commute even more unrealistic.

Trauma Responses Triggered in Interview Settings

“I want to properly showcase my relevant skills and experience without having a trauma response.”

“It opens up an opportunity to speak for themselves and explain anything during the interview process if something came up as opposed to an employer just seeing it on the application and automatically writing them off and not giving them a chance to introduce themselves.

Interview settings can mirror feelings of powerlessness that elicit trauma responses. Many survivors described their visceral reactions while being asked a series of probing questions by someone they don’t know. These include sweaty glands, stumbling over words out of nervousness, discomfort from prolonged eye contact and answering questions regarding criminal records and work gaps caused by their trafficking experience. While several participants in the report shared about physical and economic barriers like a lack of reliable transportation, professional work attire, and childcare, most survivors shared psychological barriers like loss of control, inadequacy, and fear.

When survivors can be seen and heard for who they holistically are beyond a piece of paper, they can genuinely be empowered during the interview process.

Barriers During Onboarding 

Lack of Identification

Even after being selected in the hiring process, survivors can be hindered from continuing job placement. Usually, new hires are asked to submit various forms of identification, background checks, and related proof of education or credentials during onboarding. When individuals experience trafficking, traffickers confiscate all forms of identification, sometimes never returning them to survivors, making any process where identification is needed more difficult. 

Background Checks

As we stated earlier, many employers are scared away by any form of criminal history, so if a survivor was arrested for any trafficking-caused crime like prostitution or drug use, background checks can become an additional hiccup if left unaddressed in the interview phase.

Long-Term Physical and Psychological Impact of Trauma

“I honestly think that trafficking survivors face discrimination more due to disabilities they may possess as opposed to their status as a survivor. Ableism and approaches that do not hold safe space for requesting accommodations are the biggest barriers.”

“I left because of disability and the inability to keep working at the pace I was working at.” 

Trauma can impact verbal and auditory processing, memory recall, and learning speed. Since most employers don’t proactively educate employees on their rights under the American Disabilities Act, survivors may struggle to keep up with the pace of orientation procedures and the dominant work culture. One survivor in the report shared how hard it was for her to retain all the new information during onboarding while continuing to heal, maintain her mental health, and adjust to the new work environment. Understanding the rights of individuals with invisible disabilities is critical in ensuring their success and longevity in a new role.

Barriers to Maintaining Employment

Lack of Trauma-Informed Corporate DEI Initiatives and Training

“Employers do not have an analysis to understand oppression, intersectionality, or trauma. When they receive thoughts regarding employee experiences, instead of taking responsibility, they dismiss people and/or impede solutions and healing.”

Most employers have not sought anti-oppression or trauma-informed training education when developing internal systems and protocols. This results in employees from marginalized backgrounds facing barriers that were originally put in place to exclude them. Some common examples of these practices include non-inclusive dress codes that hinder cultural or gender expression, lack of sick days,healthcare benefits that do not acknowledge the impact of trauma and Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) on health and work schedules that do not consider access to childcare for primary caregivers.

Triggering Power Dynamics

“You are just there to work whether you have a family, like that doesn’t matter. You might have personal things going on in your life that’s not factored in.”

“My employers and supervisors never understand the difficulties of childcare or involvement in my child’s education.”

Job program providers also found that survivors who maintained their job placements were the ones who worked in supportive, trauma-informed environments. In contrast, those in more traditional, top-down settings did not sustain their opportunities. In these more traditional environments, survivors stated that keeping the job proved difficult because their employers did not recognize them as a whole person or create an atmosphere of interpersonal safety.

Lack of Trust-Worthy Networks

“I came out of the life and left the old network where some of my friends had connections since high school. I had to build a new network and overcome anxiety to get out there and meet new people. It takes time, especially when we do not have a stable friend group yet.”

“The abuse I have endured can sometimes make me feel like I am not good enough to be in the room or contribute to the conversation.”

Survivors also value authentic connections with their coworkers. Anyone can become disengaged when work friendships don’t form, but this is especially true for trafficking survivors. Many survivors leave their families of origin and their existing social networks that once entangled them with a life of human trafficking, so their workplace friendships hold more weight.

Because survivors have experienced significant trauma under the guise of employment and at the hands of perceived employers and colleagues, the workplace can bring up trust and safety issues. Yet, with prioritization and implementation of trauma-informed practices, the workplace holds the potential to bring immense healing.

Lack of Opportunities for Advancement

“I need a long-term job where I am safe as a survivor and a professional.”

Many survivors surveyed in the report also said they see little to no room for advancement within their companies. Employers who value true inclusion and diversity should be mindful of job placement and creating pathways for growth that can be accessed for all employees, especially those from historically marginalized and oppressed communities.

Improve Your Corporate DEI Initiatives

Surviving isn’t enough. Let’s help economically vulnerable women thrive in the global workforce. The nonprofit and corporate sectors must unite to create dignified work opportunities for survivors to reach economic mobility. Nomi Network addresses employment barriers by partnering with the private sector and educating them on the most innovative trauma-informed practices.

Research and quotes in this article were sourced from the National Economic Justice Report in collaboration with the Avery Center.

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