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Identifying gendered shame helps men to receive assistance

When I took up my position in early 2015, Victim Support Finland had eight clients who were victims of human trafficking. Now, in 2019, we have over 240 clients who are victims of human trafficking or related crimes, and more than 170 of them have fallen victim to work-related human trafficking or other labour exploitation crime in Finland.

One of the most significant changes I have witnessed is how our understanding of the different forms of human trafficking has expanded. Previously, most people used to think that I work only with women who have experienced sexual abuse. In our training events, many were surprised when they heard of other forms of human trafficking or male victims. Moreover, we often had to explain even to our clients that they may have fallen victim to human trafficking, despite the fact that they were not women or that they had not experienced sexual abuse. Today, when I tell people where I work, we may end up discussing the working conditions in the service sector, for example.

We quickly noticed at Victim Support Finland that the victims of work-related exploitation, and men in particular, were lacking a low-threshold service aimed specifically at them. A service they could contact if they suspected that they had been criminally exploited at work, and where they could find out how to get help and how seeking help can affect their situation and that of their family. It was apparent that there was a pressing need among this customer segment for information as well as support. The male clients often experienced gendered shame for not coping alone as men, for having been deceived, for not being able to provide for their family, or for being lonely and missing their wife and children.

In order to offer a genuinely low-threshold service, we had to raise awareness of labour exploitation at a larger scale, and not focus solely on human trafficking. For this purpose, we started working in close collaboration with occupational safety and health inspectors and trade unions, and, through joint effort, we established the Fair Work Network that handles labour exploitation at a practical level.

It was also important to produce material in different languages and establish connections with different grassroot-level operators who may come across people in need of our services. In fact, our customer numbers are constantly growing, and the majority of our new clients find our services directly or through a friend. Many of them only dare to talk to us because they trust us not to disclose any information to third parties without their consent. Furthermore, here they do not have to immediately decide whether they want to take their case forward or not.

These past four years have included some sad stories. However, what I remember best are the happy ones: when someone gets out of a difficult situation, receives a residence permit after a long period of suspense and waiting, gets to see their family, or, after many years, finally gets justice. In the last few months I have, for example, rejoiced with a client because they finally found a good job; the client has been genuinely perplexed by how well they are being treated at work. Moreover, just two weeks ago I received a phone call from a young man who became our client in 2015. He was happy to tell me that even the last and final issues have now been resolved and everything is OK with him at last.