Independence Day July 4th Special – End Modern-day Slavery
By Marivir R. Montebon
New York City – Fritzie Corral received her T visa from the US government early this year. She was jumping tearfully and joyfully when she read her approved document, because for a hotel housekeeper like her, it’s a new lease on life. Most of all, the T visa was her ticket to be reunited with her family who she has not seen for 10 years.
Fritzie is among the very small segment of the labor population to be issued a T visa under the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act (VTVPA) which allows for 5000 maximum number of T visas annually. At a trafficking survivors summit, she spoke of how cunningly she was deceived by her recruiter in Manila to pay for $7110 in placement fees just to be able to go the US for a three-year-contract as housekeeper in a mountain resort in Montana.
If there were things she could have changed, Fritzie said it would have been her due diligence to check on her contract and labor rights before embarking on the otherwise coveted job in America.
“The lesson I learned (was that) I was too eager to go abroad to be able to provide a better future for my family. I paid $7110 just to get the job, not knowing my rights. I should have educated myself,” she told summit participants organized by the not-for-profit organization Mission to End Modern Day Slavery at the Christ Church on Park Avenue on June 24, 2017.
Fritzie left behind her four children to the care of her husband and mother in Manila as she was battling a miserable and humiliating life as a hotel guest worker. But even before flying to the US, she was already in deep debt because the recruiter had convinced her to loan money from its lending agency in order to be able to pay her exorbitant placement fees. She also borrowed money from her brother to cover for her travel allowances.
While constantly in pain for missing her children, Fritizie’s life in Montana was unimaginably horrible, a reality which she kept away from the knowledge of her family. She worked lesser number of hours than the stipulated 40 hours per week in her contract. She would go home to her crammed apartment every weekend almost empty handed because of her salary deductions and house rental.
It was always a struggle to make both ends meet, to take care of herself while having to send money to her children in the Philippines and pay her staggering debts.
At the end of six months, Fritizie’s recruiter did not renew her work contract, leaving her jobless and undocumented. Like her colleagues, she had to pay a “rollover fee,” which was about $600 to $800, to her recruiter for her to be placed in a new hotel assignment. Although she would scream inside her at how onerous and wily the recruiters were, Fritzie could not but deal with them in desperate search for an immediate job – she has mouths to feed and a huge debt to pay back home.
The vicious cycle of recruiter-guest worker exploitation lasted for several years for Fritzie, until she could not take it anymore. She escaped from Montana and flew to New York and finally found MEMS which facilitated the way to file for immigration relief through the office of immigration specialist Susan Pineda. In February, she was finally given a T visa. She is free from slavery.
Jovita Manlimos maintains a high spirit while waiting for the release of her T visa. She and Fritzie shared similar experiences of being trafficked by their recruiters. In 2009, Jovie worked as hotel guest worker in Florida and bolted out from the exploitative scheme of her recruiter and moved to New York.
It has been ten years since she has not seen her three children. And in gentle persuasion, she would tell them to hang on. “Every time I talk to my children, especially my youngest, she would always ask Mama, when will you come home so that I can hug and kiss you?,” said Jovie while trying to hold back her tears.
1986 Guest Worker Program – Spawning Ground for Labor Trafficking
Immigration specialist Pineda, during the forum, urged participants to take a close look at the guest worker program of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. She said the program provides recruiters high opportunities to traffic people into labor exploitation, under the H2 A and B visa program.
Pineda, co-founder of Gabriela DC, a senior paralegal officer, and bilingual advocate for survivors of domestic violence, said that the guest worker program has become a spawning ground for human and labor trafficking in the US because of the lack of government regulation on the recruitment of foreign guest workers.
“The guest worker program is a continuity of the La Bracera program to cover for labor shortages in the post-war era. Its temporary nature makes workers vulnerable to exploitation by recruiters who repeatedly ask them to pay placement fees and employers who pay them poverty wages.
“The government issues 66,000 to 135,000 visas every year for guest workers that flood the labor market, making cheap labor highly competitive and disposable. Much effort has to be done to lobby for the repeal or reform the guest workers program so that it protects the rights of workers,” Pineda explained.
The Trump administration is looking at expanding the H2B visa program in order to respond to the cheap labor needs of the non-agricultural sectors which include service, entertainment, and hotel industry.
Majority of trafficking victims are exploited for their labor, at 68% of the estimated 21 million people living in forced labor and modern-day slavery, according to the International Labor Organization.
America, due to its high need for massive labor, is a top human trafficking destination which covers all of its 50 states. But California, Texas, Florida, and New York are big homes to thousands of nameless workers silently suffering from labor and sex exploitation.
Justice has to be Accessible
Meanwhile at the auspices of the United Nations headquarters here, a survivor-advocate of sex trafficking spoke before high level government and civil society representatives in order to set the tone for the Global Plan to Combat Trafficking of Persons. Withelma T Ortiz Walker Pettigrow emphasized the need to involve women and girls in crafting laws and measures to curb human and sex trafficking.
“Please give us a seat at the decision table. We have real perspectives and understanding of this problem. I am not able to heal if I did not advocate for this,” T said during the June 23 summit.
The Baltimore-based anti-sex trafficking advocate had been trafficked for sex for seven years, at the tender age of ten, until she was 17. She said was moved from California, Nevada, Oregon and to Washington state as a sex slave.
Withelma T stressed that government and society must address the problem from the perspective of men as the predominant market for sex trade. “We have to target the perpetrators of the crime, men in particular. They are not men of respect. They quickly come in and out and live normal lives. But I have to struggle every day to rebuild my life. Justice must be accessible,” she pointed out. (Featured photo is Fritzie Corral)