As in much of the Middle East and the world, human trafficking has become a crisis in Israel. An NGO study suggests at least 12,000 men, women and children identify as sex workers across the country. Of the men and women interviewed in this study, a clear majority wish to escape the industry – but the combination of financial debt, coercion by their employers and a lack of marketable job skills finds them stuck in a miserable cycle.
On that last point, a new social enterprise in Tel Aviv strives to give former sex workers the support, confidence and skills they need to start a new life.
The Swiss-Israeli nonprofit Glowbalact recently launched A.I.R. (Act-Inspire-Restore), a social enterprise that seeks to provide jobs to people who want to leave the sex trade and start new lives. TriplePundit toured the organization’s office last week to learn more about this initiative.
The stubborn fact is that escaping prostitution can seem almost impossible for many sex workers. But could projects like this succeed in other cities around the world as a tool to help people who have been traumatized by the double scourge of both human trafficking and the underground sex industry?
Matthias and Tabea Oppliger founded Glowbalact in 2011. (The play on the word “glow” means to have people touched by this program once again shine as they become part of society again.) Tabea became especially passionate about human trafficking in her native Switzerland, and its links to the country’s sex trade. Realizing that she wanted to do more than be appalled by the situation, she started to visit massage parlors and brothels in the Zurich area – and offered free massages to the women as both a gesture of kindness and to learn more about their situation. “Everyone told me I was crazy,” she said, “but remember that these are women who are touched in the most degrading way. And offering them a massage was a way to learn more about their situation.”
During a 2014 trip to Tel Aviv, Tabea was sitting outside her hotel waiting for her husband when a woman, who was walking with and being harassed by her pimp, suddenly approached her. The sex worker apparently recognized Tabea from Zurich, and wanted to sit and talk with her. After a long and tense conversation – the pimp sat with them and was obviously unhappy about the delay in business – Tabea never saw the woman again. But she became even more resolved to take action and that such a plan to address this problem would unfold in Tel Aviv. She and Matthias wrote a business plan, pitched their ideas to NGOs and relocated to Israel. A.I.R. has now been operating for six months.
A.I.R. now employs a team of six people in Tel Aviv, and has eight former sex workers who receive daily on-the-job training. A social services agency refers the workers to A.I.D. after it is clear these workers have expressed their desire to find a career and have stopped any substance abuse. They then receive training on a variety of skills, from sewing to woodworking.
“One of the biggest challenges these workers face is that when they search for a job, they somehow have to explain this big gap in employment,” Tabea told us. “One of our rolls is to fill that gap.”
One challenge A.I.R.’s staff faces is that the enthusiasm these workers may have far outpaces their confidence. But A.I.R. social workers teach them the basics about wood, fabric and furniture making. “Some of these people’s needs are so basic,” Tabea explained. “We had one worker who at first just didn’t seem to understand the basic concepts of sewing – and then we realized that the problem was she couldn’t see well as she needed eyeglasses.”
In addition, A.I.R. relies on on volunteers who are willing to come to Israel for a few weeks or, ideally, three months to volunteer — whether they have a social work background or can help with skills training.
For now, the bulk of A.I.R.’s business is converting shipping pallets into furniture. The wood is reconfigured into benches, tables, chairs, dressers and shelves; cushions are upholstered with either fabric or vinyl salvaged from street banners that would have otherwise been discarded. The furniture is sold across Israel, and customers have included trendy coffee shops and guesthouses in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. The day we arrived, A.I.R. and Glowbalact had just started another venture: travel bags of all sizes and bibs made by discarded sailed that had been attached to kitesurfing boards.
This venture has its share of challenges. A.I.R.’s managers need to be able to purchase materials at a price low enough to allow their venture to stay profitable and employ the people who need these opportunities the most. Some materials, such as unwanted street banners and sails, are donated. But the reliance on such supplies can always impose risks if there is a sudden demand. Nevertheless, Glowbalact and A.I.R. is a case study of how to renew the lives for those most shunned by society – and are often trapped in a vicious cycle that for many, is sadly often impossible to escape.
Image credits: Vibe Israel/Amit Shemesh
Editor’s note: Vibe Israel is funding Leon Kaye’s trip. Neither the author nor TriplePundit were required to write about the experience.