This month the Labour Exploitation Advisory Group (LEAG) celebrates its five-year anniversary. To commemorate, members have prepared a four-part blog series in which they share their experiences working with and for those affected by labour exploitation, and their views on what is still needed to address and prevent it.
This week, Judith* reflects on her journey to recovery in this insightful piece.
Trigger warning: this piece mentions intra-familial abuse, domestic abuse, sexual and labour exploitation.
I would like to start by inviting you to hear my story, as I am about to narrate what I have been through, what I could have gone through, and what I could have done had I known what my rights were, before Human Trafficking and Modern Slavery introduced themselves to me.
First things first, let me tell you one of the most common situations of an exploitative or abusive situation: you might honestly not realise, while you are going through it and for years after, what you really went through. In my case, I was literally told so from an observer's point of view, and I am still trying to digest it all, with professional assistance and support from NGOs such as LAWRS and FLEX, and the UK Government through the National Referral Mechanism (NRM).
I was exploited while working as a domestic worker in the UK for a period of eight months. Deprived of sleep, sometimes food, and definitely deprived of everything I have a right to according to international and national law, as a human being with dignity. My bosses were a rich English family that needed a person to live in the parent’s house. Before then, I had also been exploited for four months while working in a hostel after I had just arrived in the UK, and later in a similar job in Spain. But the poor conditions I had to endure in this last situation, while working as a domestic worker, was the last drop to pour my emotional health all over the place.
After I left the situation I was in last, I one day saw a post on Facebook which said something like: “If you have been exploited, we would like to hear your story and we pay a certain amount for your time”. I immediately answered that call from FLEX, not only for the money, but because at the bottom of my heart I knew that I had been exploited. Although I wouldn’t admit it in part because of this culture of toxic positivity we see on social media, TV and self-help books, which makes us think we have to take responsibility for everything that happens to us. There is no excuse: “you attracted it, you are responsible for being abused”, my mind would say.
Facebook post Judith mentioned which reads “Do you work cleaning houses, flats, offices, hospitals, schools, dorms? We would like to listen to your experience. £20 incentive” in Portuguese. FLEX shared this post as part of a research project into working conditions in cleaning and hospitality.
When I got to speak to the person carrying out the research, I felt like I was giving them my time and telling them how I was abused, while at the same time deeply questioning whether my abusive situation wasn’t actually better than the place I was in at that moment. It was as if there were two of me fighting and one was saying: “you were being abused but at least you were safe there”. How can someone be safe in such conditions? But I was convinced that being safe is enough for surviving, and that that was all that this world had for me. I was wrong!
When you start looking deep into human trafficking, it is sad to see how many victims end up going back to their abusers, to their pimps, to their bosses, to their owners. And then the story starts to get sad and consuming. Why would somebody take such desperate action? How can being exploited be the safest option?
It is generally the same for everyone, but without generalising I will use the right I have to talk about my experience and if it does resonate with the readers, the objective of this text will have been reached successfully.
It all started in my childhood. It usually, as I said, starts there.
I was severely abused from the age of four by the person who was supposed to love and care for me: my mother. I was physically beaten to the point of her exhaustion in most of my childhood memories. When I think of my childhood, it takes me straight to the scene where I was being beaten while instinctively protecting my most vulnerable areas: my jugular and my stomach. She would only stop when her arms would not let her continue, and then eventually she would use the laws of physics her favour to punish me: I would have to kneel on corn grain, metal bottle lids, and the weight of my own body would punish me.
Of course, as I grew up, I didn’t know that that behaviour would follow me into adult life. But I was trained to endure so much and receive nothing in exchange but water, food, and a roof. I was a vulnerable adult ready to be exploited by whoever would take me first. First come first served basis.
For many years I have been trying to convince myself that what she did to me was out of love. Weird, I know. But I had to find a positive behind it all in order to survive. To be sober under these circumstances was and is, sometimes, unbearable. And I need help from time to time. And time again.
So, my justification for this was the exact one that she gave me from a very young age. She had stopped her life because I had been inside her belly. She had put on weight and I had drained her cells and all she had to grow inside her. She had stopped studying and thriving in life because now she had that little piece of self that although it was now detached, was still part of her. Hence, she had the right to have done what she had to me. She gave me life, she fed me, she carried me around and then, finally, she destroyed me.
This was the reference of love I knew. These were the sacrifices I was ready to take in life. This was the only familiarity I had ever experienced, so my life could only be a succession of abuses. A collection of violations that I had to handle, to bear. All of these people loved me after all, each of them in their own way. Therefore, they had the right to destroy a part of me. This was the pattern.
So, are you shocked yet? Well, my therapist certainly was when I tried to defend my mother in the therapy room in order to explain her justifications and the reasons she had to break all of me in the name of her love for me. In the name of the worries she had if I were to become a disobedient adult. I had to be put right! She did it because she had my best interests at heart.
I tried to convince my trained therapist that she was wrong. That all those people who have abused me had the right to do so because all of them loved me in their own way. I kept fighting for my version of my story, to be safe. That was the safest I could possibly be, as opposed to facing down the pile of wrongdoings I have suffered. The indescribable pain that was installed in me. The critically fragile state of mind I have been bred with. The software that ‘abuse is ok’ was inside me. Deeply installed during the time a child should receive love and protection.
One day, my therapist had enough of me trying to defend all that I had romanticised over the years and she told me: “It is not ok what your mother did to you. It is not ok, what people did to you. It is not ok, all the sexual abuse you had endured from the age of six to twelve. It is not ok to be violated in every way shape or form.” Then I quickly tried to argue with her to explain the unexplained reasons I had just created to protect my version, my psyche, my tiny self.
She quickly answered: “No matter what they have been through, no matter the reasons they told you they had, none of them had the right to do what they did. No matter what!” A silence took place: Why did all of them do that to me? This was the first time this question had hit me, and it hit me hard.
That day I left therapy lightheaded, crossing streets without looking to the sides. Inside me, I had had to hold on to the “whys” and the explanations about why I have been through all of that. From quantum physics to religion to psychology and whatever I could use to justify what they have done to me, so I would not see the atrocities I have suffered, as bad as they were. I had to romanticised them in order to be alive, to move on.
It was a shock and took a lot for me to realise that now I had support to start a new way of seeing life. People and their actions. What is mine and what is theirs to carry. And I am happy and grateful I did realise it in time to recover, at the age of thirty. Thirty years of suffering, of abuses, of recollections and internal fights to protect who shouldn’t be protecting in any instance. Who should have been protected was my four-year old self. And as hard as it is to admit, I was not. And there is nothing I can do about that, but I can stop carrying the blame for what other people did to me. And I am working now on the necessary tools to not go into another abusive situation again.
I am having therapy because after I spoke to FLEX as part of that research I mentioned before, they referred me to LAWRS. And through them I realised that I was not alone in this. That this situation is more common than one can think, and it has to stop. And if we can, we have at all costs, to protect our children, especially during the early ages. That time will define what they will take as acceptable or unacceptable in life. Child abuse has no excuse to take place!
The reason why I skipped the details about my human trafficking case is because I am fighting very powerful people that exploited me, and I would not like it to be public. I am not sure if justice will be made, but I am doing the homework of standing up for myself and fighting them.
I would like to invite you to think about how I got to believe that being exploited was the only thing life had in store for me. People give us a roof and we pay with our dignity, they give you food and they can take part of your soul, they give water and so they own you for the goods they find fit. Unless you were shown what being respected is like, what having dignity is like, what being loved feels like and what being aware of your rights to it is like.
It took me months of therapy to have the first glimpse on what it means to be “worthy”. My therapist had a tough time convincing me of that. And I am still not sure sometimes. Once you are in an abusive state of mind, it is a hard cycle to break. In my case, what it took was to see this post saying: “WERE YOU EXPLOITED? WE’D LIKE TO HEAR YOUR STORY”. If the post had said: ”were you exploited? Would you like to sue your exploiters?” I would have run miles away. But as it was casual and simple, I just jumped in rather quickly to be heard and to get the money offered. I took the bait to my freedom. And today I throw baits to freedom: I know who to go to or how to say to a person where they can be heard and from there, find out they can be helped, just like it happened to me.
I still remember the kind lady at FLEX called Letícia who referred me to LAWRS. LAWRS got me an immigration and compensation lawyer for free, offered me support with counselling even though I had insecure immigration status in the UK.
So, finally, I am free of most of the thoughts I would have when people would come to gaslight me. I have tools to identify abusive situations and to leave them rather quickly! And when my brain comes up with the words: “but they had reasons to do what they did…” I shout it out rather skilfully and walk away to a position where I am wanted, accepted, respected and valued.
My heart still breaks when I see oppression, aggression, injustice, tyranny and violence, because I have experienced it on my own skin for thirty years and it is undoubtedly triggering and might never stop, but I hope it will. I hope to uplift people so they can stand up for themselves, as I am able to do today. Through my activism, I developed a workshop of self-esteem and holistic healing through drama for victims of human trafficking and refugees.
That is my story. Thanks for stopping by and have a good and safe life and remember: you are worthy. What has happened in the past won’t define who you can be in your future, as long as you don’t feel ashamed to ask for help. Asking for help is a sign of bravery and the utmost step for changing.
*Not her real name.
Read the previous blog of this series here.