Empire Files: Buying a Slave – The Hidden World of US-Philippines Trafficking
The Philippines is one of the largest labor exporters in the world. Tricked by placement agencies, thousands end up living as virtual slaves. Abby Martin speaks to several members of the anti-trafficking organization Damayan about how this exodus of women has devastated a generation of families, and how they are fighting back
Speaker 1: The Philippines, among the many nations whose history is one of being colonized and subjugated by the world’s empires, today suffers the consequences of that legacy, underdevelopment, high unemployment, and deepening poverty. This has led to a phenomenon that dominates the lives of millions of Filipinos. The fact that over 10% of the population, mostly women, must leave the country to seek work in order to send money back to their families.
Six thousand people leave the Philippines as migrant workers every single day. Imagine children, often too young to understand, watching their mother leave, and knowing they will not see them again for a decade or more. This is now a shared experience for countless families in the island nation. Most go to work low-waged jobs in the United States, United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia, and Japan.
They send back over $20 billion a year into the Philippine economy. Despite its dramatically smaller population, the Philippines ranks alongside India and China as the top countries receiving [inaudible 00:01:23], but when these people leave their homes, they enter into a dark, cruel industry.
Human trafficking is mostly absent in US consciousness. Most don’t think of trafficking when it comes to jobs like nannies, maids at big hotel chains, and other domestic work, but millions of migrant workers are trafficked into these jobs every year. It’s defined as the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring, or receipt of persons by improper means for an improper purpose including forced labor, or sexual exploitation.
This global black market ensnares 21 million people around the world, making $150 billion a year in illegal profits for traffickers. According to the recent report, the human trafficking of domestic workers in the United States, there are currently two million migrant domestic workers that live in the US. Around 300,000 of whom are Philippina, and doing legally with work visas. The overwhelming majority are placed by agencies in a shockingly inhumane conditions.
Over 80% have had their pay withheld or are paid below minimum wage, live in abusive conditions, and have been tricked or false or deceptive contracts. Over 70% work excessive overtime, and have had their movements restricted or monitored by employers. A New York City based organization called Damayan, which means to help each other, is one group fighting this web of exploitation. It is led by Filipino women domestic workers, and with 8,000 members, organizes and provides legal assistance to other migrant workers, and trafficking victims.
I visited their bustling headquarters to understand more about the situation. Linda, a co-founder at Damayan who came to the US as a migrant worker, explains the sacrifice experienced by these women.
Linda: In 1994, I made a fateful decision to come here. When I first came here, I left my children. They were in elementary. A boy and a girl, and it wasn’t easy. It’s always hard for a mother to leave her children, but I thought that I did not have a choice. I had no enough source of income to send my two children to college, and I really need to go abroad. My thing, my difficulties in being away from my children, those were all collateral damage.
I was very young then. I’m now 65. Life is different for me now. I also have a granddaughter. Having the chance to raise my granddaughter, now I realize how precious the moments that I’ve lost. That really cost my relationship to my children. Women, Filipino women, who come here, they don’t talk about the family and the social cost of migration, but it is real.
Speaker 1: One of Linda’s children, her daughter [Ria 00:04:31] also came to the US as an adult. She recalls what it was like to lose her mother so young.
Ria: Yeah, it was really difficult. I consider myself a product of forced migration. When I was eight, I found myself crying my eyes out at the Manila International Airport because my father, brother, and I were saying goodbye to my mother. She was about to board her flight to work as a domestic worker in the US. I had no idea what was going on, but I knew that I was about to lose my mother, and our family was about to get separated.
After that, things changed. I was diagnosed with Complex PTSD. When I got older, and I know it was because of the family separation or the impacts of family separation on my family. That’s why I’m very invested in this work.
Speaker 1: Human trafficking survivor, Sally, also came to the US at great personal cost.
Sally: I have three children, and my husband suffered a stroke, so I need to work to provide their living. My youngest child is a special child, so it’s hard for me to leave, but I need to go abroad to support them. The worst that I experienced when I’m not with them is when my husband died, and I didn’t go home. I have no money, so it’s hard to see that. I cannot see the last breath of my husband. My kids is, they are living without parents, so it’s hard for me.
Speaker 1: Yeah.
Linda: It’s really sad for these women, me included, that you pay a very high price to support your family, and you grow old, and you realize you’re still sacrificing. Many of our members are broken. Not just brokenhearted, well they’re also penniless. They sent all the money home. No money to take care of themselves when they go home, and they’re heartbroken. There was a time when it was more men who are leaving the country, working in Saudi, in the United States, and other countries for manufacturing, construction jobs.
That era was disappearing by 1980s and beginning 1990s, so from the 1990s the migration has become feminized. Now the challenge is on the women, and the women took it. Although 6,000 Filipinos who leave every day, I could say that maybe 80% are women, and 70% of those women become domestic workers. In the Philippines, one out of four have a family member that is abroad. Now, it’s mostly women.
Speaker 1: I can’t imagine what that does to a country when that many women are leaving their family behind.
Linda: [inaudible 00:08:08] a generation of this function of families and children, with a lot of emotional and psychological problems.
Speaker 1: These women endure such personal hardships only to become victims of human trafficking and subjected to criminal working conditions.
Ria: In 2007, we met our first trafficking survivor. She was the domestic worker for the Philippine Ambassador to the UN. She worked as a nurse in the Philippines, and she was promised that she would be able to work as a nurse when she comes here, so she was asked to sign a contract basically that she would pay $5,000, and she would be able to come here and work.
Then when she came here, she didn’t know that she would come here as a domestic worker for the diplomat, so she ended up cleaning three floors, house with three floors. She was serving the diplomat, his family, including his children. Her passport was taken. She was not allowed to leave the house. The house was locked from the inside.
She had no phone. She had no contact with her family, to the point that she was suicidal. We met her because I think the landline, they wouldn’t even give her access to that landline. One time it rang. She picked it up. There was a Filipino on the other line. She said, “Help me. Help me.” The other woman ended up knowing the Damayan, that’s how she was connected to us.
Speaker 1: How common is that for diplomats to completely abuse the system like that?
Ria: Oh yeah, very, very common. Like what I said, we’ve been doing this work since 2007, and until recently, most of the cases we’re handling are domestic workers of diplomats. We’ve handled cases from diplomats from Japan, from Peru, from Germany. The UN is just right here. It’s like buying a slave for them.
You would think this people, with their degrees and their titles, would treat another human being with dignity and respect, right? They’re supposed to be human rights defenders, but they’re the very ones who are abusing this workers, who are taking care of their homes and their children, and them. It’s mind boggling.
Speaker 1: It is. The level of dehumanization is totally mind boggling. Let’s talk about the passports being removed, and the lack of communication because people watching this may think, “Well, why can’t you just call your family? Why can’t you just warn people and say don’t do this and help me?” A lot of these people have all these things completely cut off from them.
Ria: The first thing that they do when they get a domestic worker in their homes is to take away their passport. One of the main elements of labor trafficking is control. It’s creating that climate of fear, so it’s either the control has grew physical, meaning their passport is taken, or other important documents are taken, the house is locked. I’ve never heard of houses that gets locked from the inside, but apparently that’s where diplomats set up their houses that way.
Speaker 1: It’s insane.
Ria: I know right. Who does that, really? It’s like premeditated crime, right? We’ve had a worker who worked for a diplomat in West Chester, where there’s an alarm system, so every time she stepped out to bring out the trash or get the newspaper, the alarm would beep. It would keep beeping until she enters the house again. The consulates or the embassies in the Philippines or in other countries, they’re actually aware that there is trafficking happening in the US because they would tell the workers, “If anything happens to you, call this number.”
Then we’ve consistently heard of this pamphlet that was given to our members, but we’ve never seen a copy. Then yesterday, I just received a copy from our members, so it’s this one. This is the pamphlet that they would receive from the consulate from their home countries, and then usually as soon as they come here, the passport and this pamphlet would be taken away from them.
Isn’t that ironic, right? It’s like, “Okay, call this number if you’re getting trafficked,” and as soon as you come here like, “Okay, I guess I can’t call them because they’re taking this. I’m actually getting trafficked right now. That’s just the irony of the situation.
Speaker 1: Ria, let’s talk about the conditions, the abusive conditions, that some of these people are living in, and the slave-like conditions essentially. Let’s start with just the pay. You said that there’s instances where you can sign up on a contract, and say you’re contracting to have this many hours for this much pay. Of course, that is violated. What about when you’re not paid at all, and you’re essentially trapped in these situations? Talk about that.
Ria: We’ve had one of our worker organizers, Lydia, she was brought here by a church. She was supposed to come here as a missionary, but she ended up working as a domestic worker for some of the top church leaders. She worked for free for three years, like zero pay.
Lydia: When I was invited to come here, I was very excited and happy to have this opportunity, so in that opportunity to coming here as a missionary I get five years visa, just visa. In that contract I was told that in two years, being full time in the church, doing a fund raising in supporting the church, they would adjust my status into Green Card, but that didn’t happen to me. I ended up became domestic worker for three years, no salary.
I was taking care of the three young kids for three years, seven days a week, 24 hours a day, no days off, no salary. I always hungry. I have no … I can’t talk to my friends. I can’t communicate with my family. I was told because my Green Card didn’t come, so I was told they’re going to send me back to Philippines, but then I realized I was used by this family.
The reason I cannot escape in this situation, I cannot live in this situation, I don’t know anyone. I’m scared. I came as a missionary. I know people around that group. Then I was told not making a friend in the outside of that group is not safe for me. I can’t imagine going back for nothing, and then going to start from zero. What will happen to my future and my family?
Speaker 1: When they found out you were gone, they tried to contact you, and threaten you, and deport you.
Lydia: Yes. I have to hide. I don’t have anyone. Even like went to my family in Philippines looking for me.
Speaker 1: What?
Lydia: Yes. “Is Lydia here?” It was kind of scary. They’re treating me like a criminal.
Speaker 1: The placement agencies running this scam, register workers in the US, primarily through their H-2B visas for low-skilled seasonal workers, and A-3G5 visas for domestic workers of diplomats. Foreign diplomats are actually the top clients for traffickers.
Ria: For A-3G5 or domestic workers of diplomats, that means that they were recruited even from the Philippines, they were promised on paper they would earn this much, work for 40 hours a week, get paid $8 an hour, have benefits, have transportation, lodging, days off, but when they come here, they realize that it’s all a fraud.
Everything that they were shown, was just for show so that their visa would be approved, and they would be able to come here. Same thing with domestic workers who go through the H-2B program. The H-2B program that’s actually low-skilled seasonal workers. The US governments quota for that is $60,000 a year or around $60,000 a year.
The strategy of the placement agencies is to fill the quota. They would go to third-world countries, like Mexico, India, and the Philippines, recruit workers who are not really middle-class, more like working for [inaudible 00:17:09] background, with the promise of being able to come to the US.
They would be forced to pay anywhere between $3,000 to $9,000. Of course these are not rich people in the Philippines. It’s a third-world country, so they would like loan the house, mortgage the house, borrow money from loan sharks. It becomes a community affair. Everyone in the family pitches in. Then when they get the money, the required as a processing fee, they’re able to come here, only to find out that there are no jobs for them, or they were promised 40 hours a week, but they’re only working anywhere from between five to ten hours.
Then, of course, by that time, panic would set it because they were already expecting that they would be able to pay their debts back home. The kids would be able to go to school. It’s money for the medical bills. Then when they come here, none of that happens, so they get into like a spiral of depression and also just abuse at the hands of the placement agencies.
They usually find themselves living in cramped living situations. We’re talking about like a two bedroom apartment with like three or four people in each room with no furnishings. They were earning like $50 a week. Then they still had to pay for their apartment, meanwhile they’re not earning. They were not earning. They would, when they’re cleaning the resorts, or the hotels, they would gather food that the guests had left, and they would get food in the trash. They would recook it, and then eat it.
We’ve had an instance of a worker who was brought to a container van, and then they opened the van. It was filled with cockroaches. They said, “No, we’re not going in there.” The workers refused to go in there, so they bombed it with poison. Then they had to clean up the cockroaches. Imagine moving halfway around the world, and then being confronted by situation like that. You don’t know the country. You don’t know the culture. You don’t know anyone. Then you’re totally alone and desperate.
A lot of the workers, like I said, are either working poor, or peasants, or middle class professionals, but even the middle class professionals, they would apply for an H-2B visa because there are no jobs back home. It’s like living in a third-world country like the Philippines, it’s like living in a burning building. You’re living in a burning building, and of course, you’re forced to jump out of the windows.
In the Philippines case, you’re not just jumping out of the windows, someone is actually profiting from you, from jumping out of the windows. These are the placement agencies that are approved by the Philippine government. Then on the US side, of course there’s collaborations between the placement agencies. These agencies are tied to big hotels, and big resorts in Florida, or in other cities.
Instead of hiring US born or American workers, where they have to pay minimum wage, full benefits, and other things, they will skip all of that and just hire a worker from a third-world country like the Philippines, and pay $7.50 an hour, no benefits at all. Of course, they would go with the worker, with the migrant worker.
Speaker 1: Another way these placement agencies profit from those trapped in this fraud is by charging them around seven times the amount for visa renewals, a process required every six to nine months. Even more treacherous is when the agencies refuse to renew their worker’s visas at all, trapping them in a situation where they must work illegally under threat from their employer.
Ria: It’s a very desperate situation for them because now they found themselves becoming undocumented. It’s not the typical narrative that we know when we talk about undocumented people, workers, migrant workers, coming here, and then their visas not being renewed. It’s either because that placement agencies are abusive, or diplomats who are abusive and they have to run away. It’s not the typical narrative that we know.
Lydia: So they mess up my papers, but they force me to work without proper documents.
Speaker 1: The contract was being violated that you signed. Your visa wasn’t renewed. Talk about when they forced you to keep working without proper documentation. How did you make that work?
Lydia: Yeah. I feel so bad because I’m very scared to get out of my house and going to work when the manager, we will talk to the manager. They just said, “If you do not stop, you will be deported. I will called the police. Then they will put you in the chamber.” They said like that. We talk about our situation with my co-workers. We decided to escape.
Linda: Many have overstayed. It is true, Mr. Trump, many have overstayed. Why? Because there’s no other option for these women to support their children except to continue working in their receiving countries like the US. If I am a just remind, the government of the United States, our country was ruined primarily by the United States. If Mr. Trump, and [inaudible 00:23:04] are trying to think what will make immigrants go home, just create jobs in the sending country. Why is that not happening?
Because the interest of the elite in the Philippines, and the interest of the corporations here are very tightly intertwined. That’s really the story. We are just your creations. If we’re going to solve this, we have to solve it on [inaudible 00:23:35] level.
Speaker 1: For Damayan, these deeper issues are at the core of their fight. They’re in a two-front battle. On one side, fighting for the rights of their workers. On the other, fighting to change the system that created this tragic crisis.
Ria: There’s this quote that I really like. The workers are the true makers of history.
[foreign language 00:23:53]
We’re creating this entire process, not just to help them adjust their status, or win their wage stuff, their stolen wages, but it’s also so that we can raise their consciousness. It was sad that this happened to me. It was heartbreaking that they suffered, but also that a lot of people are suffering.
Trafficking survivors as a collective are suffering. The children of domestic workers are suffering. The suffering will not end if we just stop with adjusting our status and winning our cases. We can end that vicious cycle if we put the leadership of trafficking survivors at the center.