In commemoration of the National Slavery and Trafficking Prevention Month
By Marivir R. Montebon
There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you. — Maya Angelou
New York City — Being trafficked in these modern times is what the proverbial jumping from the frying pan into the fire literally means – like the teachers in the Philippines who were in exodus to the US in the early 2000. They excitedly thought that at last they found a way out of the poverty, only to be subjected to slave-like conditions by their own recruiters in a strange, unfamiliar land. Sadly, human trafficking is one of the most miserable conditions one can get entangled in.
My heart cries out with these teachers each time I listen to their stories and write about them. There are thousands of them in the US, more than half are women.
Janet was trafficked in 2008. With high hopes for a better life for her and her family, she flew from Manila to Virginia believing that she will be a Special Education teacher. But there was no promised job waiting for her in the vastness of America. She instead was forced by her recruiter to be a babysitter and assistant teacher in a small daycare center in order to survive.
Suddenly thrust in a horrible situation of hunger and helplessness, Janet thought she would go crazy because of fear, anger, shame, and loneliness. She lived in an unfurnished apartment, squished together with her other colleagues, while their recruiter was doing them a ‘favor’ of placing them in babysitting or care giving jobs.
In the winter of 2013, when her misery has gone to the extent that she wanted to commit suicide, Janet nervously decided to call for help.
She dialed the non-government agency’s number that her friend had told her about to tell her story over the phone, sobbing hysterically as she asked for help.
Janet told the paralegal officer that her recruiter had threatened to have her deported unless she paid the balance of her recruitment fees. But she could not continue to pay it off, after having been laid off from the preschool where she worked as assistant teacher.
Distraught and in deep debt and regret, Janet had been swinging from being suicidal to braving immigration authorities about her condition.
She finally chose to tell her story and now, she is working her way out of bondage.
Janet and other teachers in Virginia and California who were swindled by big time Filipino recruiters are up in arms for their battle for justice. They courageously testified before immigration authorities about their condition, despite the risks that their families in the Philippines may face due to retaliation by their affluent recruiters. They have also applied for T (Trafficking) visas.
Slavery is alive in modern day America. In fact, there are more slaves today, estimated to be about 27 million, than at any other time in human history. They are mostly women and children.
As for Janet, her American dream turned out to be a nightmare the moment she landed at the Dulles Airport in Virginia. She was excited to be a Special Education teacher in one of the state’s prestigious schools, only to sense that there was something fishy going on when she arrived. She was not picked up at the airport when she already paid $200 to her recruiter for her car service.
She frantically tried to find her way to her recruiter’s place in the wee hours of the night, and was unwelcomed. To her that was both disheartening and strange, when in the Philippines, the recruiter was friendly and accommodating.
The following day, the recruiter, still in a nasty mood, brought her to the school employer. The supervisor was surprised why Janet said she was ready to work when there was no hiring being undertaken by the school.
Janet burst in tears when she realized that she was deceived and trapped.
The plot thickens when her recruiter told her never to tell her situation to anybody, or she will have her deported by US authorities. Because there was no teaching job waiting for Janet, the recruiter brought her to a preschool where she was to work as teacher/babysitter to survive in America.
She had no other recourse but to take the job in order to pay her debt of $30,000 in the Philippines that covered her recruitment fees, airfare, and house rental fees. Janet is a victim of fraud. She worked as a babysitter, continuously paid her recruiter for her placement fees, and managed to send meager amounts of money to her family and debtors in the Philippines.
Traffickers prey on the vulnerabilities of people who are aspiring for a better life – people who are poor, uneducated, neglected, unemployed, victims of sexual abuse, coming from unstable homes, immigrants, or refugees. But educated people can be deceived as well.
Human trafficking has insanely gone sophisticated and global that the United Nations created the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons (the Trafficking Protocol or UN TIP Protocol) to the Convention against Transnational Organized Crime. The Trafficking Protocol was adopted in Palermo in 2000 and enforced on December 25, 2003.
As of March 2013, it has been signed by 117 countries and ratified by 154 parties.
In compliance, the US Congress passed into law The Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act (TVPA) in 2000, offering protection for persons in the country who may be victims of human trafficking. The TVPA combats trafficking by prosecuting, protecting, and preventing human trafficking. It is through this law that most of the victims of human trafficking, acquires legal status in the US.
Janet and her co-teachers have begun to reclaim their freedom. It was their courage that bailed them out.
Under the TVPA law, the US government grants T-visa to victims of severe forms of trafficking. T visas offer them a path to freedom — and even citizenship — in exchange for their help in putting slave runners behind bars.
We look at trafficking as a systematic and sophisticated crime against people. While the US has done its part to protect trafficked individuals, and encourage victims to come out to the surface for their own protection, we also look at sending countries, particularly the Philippines. Traffickers must be prosecuted to stop the vicious cycle. More importantly, the policy of labor export has to stop.
We need to look at the larger picture and reflect at our own manner of conducting national life in the Philippines. Development is not measured in dollar remittances. When do we stop measuring success as having gone abroad to work? Meaningful development is internally propelled by an industrialized agriculture and a decolonized cultural consciousness. Otherwise, the Philippine diaspora will never ever make any long-term sense. (Photo is a painting of New York by the late labor artist Ralph Fasanella)