Covid Stories: Giving Voice to Victims of Human Trafficking

Without translationwe would be living in provinces bordering on silence.” (George Steiner).

By: Dusan Matic, Training Department Manager

Human trafficking, especially labour trafficking, remains a major problem in Canada to this day. Sometimes it can be difficult to process that in a progressive and open-minded country such as ours, thousands of foreign workers face victimization, abuse and trafficking. We tend to believe that labour trafficking happens somewhere far away from our homes. How many times have we heard from our fellow Canadians:It doesn’t happen here; it only happens in third- world countries. This is Canada. No way!” The reality is that it does happen, and it happens every day, in every corner of Canada.

Foreign workers are promised jobs, security, and better futures for their families. Unfortunately, many of them also end up becoming victims of labour trafficking. Yet, one of the major factors contributing to their vulnerable position is their inability to communicate in the local language. We very well might see labour trafficked people every day – they may be our neighbours, or the contractors sent to our home to paint the walls or fix the roof. We would never know if they were in desperate need of help because if we do not speak the same language, they most likely will not ask us to help them.

Now imagine being a victim of human trafficking during a pandemic that has affected the lives of all, and in particular, those who are most vulnerable. Given the current global economic crisis, there are fears that this unprecedented turn of events is making the task of identifying victims of human trafficking even more difficult. The persons being trafficked are more exposed to contracting the virus, less equipped to prevent it, and have limited access to healthcare to ensure recovery.[1]  In addition, the survivors of human trafficking are at severe risk of being re-trafficked, with many reporting that they have been contacted and targeted by their former traffickers during the pandemic.[2]

When trafficked persons, who have been promised high-paying jobs, arrive, they often end up being forced to work long hours under poor and unsafe working conditions for little or no money; they are also required to pay back illegal recruitment fees, separate from the immigration services fee for which they can legally be charged.[3] Human rights campaigners worldwide have warned of a rollback of workers’ rights as a consequence of the pandemic – from lockdowns and business closures to closed borders – meaning that there are more people competing for fewer jobs on worse terms and for less pay.[4]

Being in a foreign country, being lied to and being forced to work extensive hours for extremely low wages, and sometimes, none at all will likely diminish the courage one could have to go to the authorities and report the abuse, not to mention feeling frightened about other possible consequences, including deportation. The inability to speak the local language means that your communication channels are reduced to either your abusive employer or your co-workers sharing the same fate. The language barrier is often identified as the single biggest obstacle to ending the cycle of labour trafficking.

In Canada, a total of 1,220 incidents of human trafficking were reported to the authorities between 2009 and 2016, with the number and rate of human trafficking incidents steadily increasing since 2010.[5] However, human trafficking is extremely hard to measure and the vast majority of cases are never reported or prosecuted. For example, migrant workers hesitate to complain out of fear of losing their jobs and status in Canada, and some of them come to Canada deeply indebted to job recruiters, ending up in situations of coercion and labour trafficking.[6]

However, even if the public is indeed aware of human trafficking as a problem, the role that communication and language play in this global phenomenon is not always equally clear. For example, not that long ago, in 2010 in fact, the largest proven human trafficking ring in Canadian history was discovered. It has been widely reported[7] that nineteen Hungarian men were brought to Canada by a criminal organization with the promise of high-paying jobs in the construction industry. When they arrived, their passports were taken. They were forced to live in a basement, work 14 to 16 hours a day for no pay, and were threatened with violence against their families in Hungary if they tried to leave or complain. The capturers knew all too well that, as the men did not speak either English or French, it was almost impossible for their victims to leave. The turning point in this story was when one of the victims found the courage to speak up despite these odds. He told a contractor (who luckily spoke the same language) at the job site he was working at about what was happening, and the contractor called the authorities. As the authorities became aware of the severity of the situation, language professionals started playing a key role – connecting people through languages[8]. For months, interpreters and translators helped these victims of trafficking by removing communication barriers. They were with survivors every step of their way to long-awaited truth and freedom.

For those reasons and more, language professionals across the world are those who are giving the voices to those who are heard, but cannot be understood. And it could very well be that their services are needed now more than ever. They interpret in courts, hospitals, immigration offices, and countless other places where people have needed their messages to be recognized. They translate many millions of pages and billions of words to ensure that justice will be served, and victims’ fears and traumas will be eased. They are the guardians of the secrets, emotions, fears, and struggles of millions in need, always striving for perfection and accuracy of the word. They are guided by the pillars of confidentiality, impartiality and accountability to pave the road for vulnerable groups and individuals to get the help they need. In this, interpreters and translators are key messengers, because as George Steiner said, “without translation, we would be living in provinces bordering on silence.”

If you want to learn more about initiatives addressing human trafficking, free training and access to continuous education webinars, click here. The training has been created through funding from the Ministry of Attorney General which recognized the need to train and connect professionals in the field.

[1] https://www.unodc.org/documents/Advocacy-Section/HTMSS_Thematic_Brief_on_COVID-19.pdf

[2] https://www.cfr.org/blog/evolution-human-trafficking-during-covid-19-pandemic

[3] http://www.canadiancentretoendhumantrafficking.ca/labour-trafficking/

[4] https://www.reuters.com/article/us-un-trafficking-health-coronavirus-trf/coronavirus-risks-making-labour-exploitation-the-new-normal-u-n-warns-idUSKCN24V2RH

[5] https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/85-005-x/2018001/article/54979-eng.htm

[6] https://ccrweb.ca/sites/ccrweb.ca/files/reportcards_complete_en.pdf

[7] https://www.theglobeandmail.com/, https://www.thestar.com/

[8] https://www.mcislanguages.com/our-story/


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