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Sexuality and Gender Law Clinic Files Brief in Household Labor Trafficking Case

Family Members Should Face Penalties for Forcing Young Relatives into Domestic Servitude, Brief Argues


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New York, June 27, 2011—Columbia Law School’s Sexuality and Gender Law Clinic filed an amicus brief in the Second Circuit case, Velez v. Sanchez, highlighting the serious problem of family members trafficking young relatives into domestic labor.  This practice, which has young family members working as barely-paid servants in relatives’ homes, violates both international and U.S. law.

“The great risk in these cases is that family members can disguise exploitation of their young relatives as family help,” said Professor Suzanne B. Goldberg, Sexuality and Gender Law Clinic director. “Because young women are often expected to help their relatives around the house, courts must take care to avoid mistaking exploitation for permissible family assistance.”   

According to the U.S. State Department and International Labor Organization, more than six million young women are victims of forced labor trafficking, often at the hands of parents and other relatives who bring their daughters, nieces, and other young relatives into this labor “market,” forcing them to do demanding household work for little or no pay. 

Cultural expectations that young people, and particularly young women, should “help out” the family make young people particularly vulnerable to this exploitation. As well, many family members hold power over their young relatives and, as the brief shows, make intrafamilial exploitation difficult to detect.  Further, the brief emphasizes that a young relative’s dependence on her family can make exploitative relationships hard to recognize, let alone escape.
    
The case, Velez v. Sanchez, comes to the Second Circuit on appeal from a lower court’s dismissal of a young woman’s trafficking and forced labor claims based, in part, on the court’s finding that the young woman and her employers shared a “close familial relation.” In Velez, family members induced their sixteen-year-old relative to leave her home in Ecuador for the United States based on promises that she would be paid to provide childcare and allowed to go to school.  Instead, when she arrived in the United States, the young woman was not permitted to attend high school, and for over two years, her family members forced her to work as a domestic servant in their home for no pay.  

“Our brief points out that familial relations do not transform an employee’s work into chores; this work is still work.  Treating a young person’s domestic labor as a ‘labor of love’ in these situations dangerously allows traffickers hide unlawful exploitation,” said Hillary Schneller ’12, a clinic student who worked on the brief.  

Citing international and domestic anti-trafficking laws and laws aimed at protecting those most vulnerable to– women and young people – the Clinic argues that legal norms make clear that neither strangers nor family members may engage in domestic labor exploitation.  Indeed, these laws make special efforts to forbid intrafamilial trafficking.  

The brief builds on an earlier Clinic report, entitled Sent Away: The Trafficking of Young Girls and Women within the Family Unit, that was submitted to the European Court of Human Rights, which took up the issue of intrafamilial trafficking in the case Osman v. Denmark last year.

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