‘I felt like a prisoner’: A human trafficking victim-turned-advocate shares her story

Annual ‘modern slavery’ summit highlights illegal recruitment, hospitality worker trafficking

Filipinos around the world are all sure of one thing about the motherland: the economic status of the country is less than ideal.

In fact, the economic decline of the Philippines can be traced back to the 1970s when scarcity of employment opportunities forced Filipinos to search for employment overseas in order to provide for the family back home.

Although the prospect of finding a job overseas may seem ideal, many people have been duped into the business of human trafficking.

Human trafficking, as defined by the United Nations, includes the “recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring, or receipt of persons by improper means (such as force, abduction, fraud, or coercion) for an improper purpose including forced labor or sexual exploitation.”

Moreover, those who are trafficked are often lured with the oft-false promise of high pay and quality work conditions when, in fact, they are often underpaid and even abused and left with little to no freedom or knowledge to get themselves out of the situation.

The Mission to End Modern Slavery (MEMS) initiative highlights current trends of and ways in which to combat modern slavery with a focus on illegal recruitment in forced labor. Through the participation of an alliance of mostly Filipino anti-trafficking organizations like Migrante International, the MEMS holds a survivor-led summit every year to raise awareness for the plight of the hundreds of thousands of trafficking victims around the world.

“The problem [of human trafficking] is invisible because it’s so normalized. And we don’t see it as an oppressive system,” BAYAN USA Chairperson Bernadette Ellorin said at the 2018 MEMS summit held at the Cathedral Center for St. Paul in Los Angeles on Saturday, May 12.

“In many cases [trafficking victims] have been shamed by communities and been told to suck it up and that what happened to them wasn’t trafficking, and, in many cases, survivors have been manipulated and when they turn to legal experts or even consulates to remedy the situation, they are often turned away. They were legitimately enslaved. They were legitimately trafficked into this country and they are fighting back by sharing their stories.”

In 2013, Fritzie Corral, a married mother of four, needed a new job and a friend had notified her of a recruitment agency called Northwest Placement USA, Inc. (NWPI), which describes itself on its website as a high-quality “foreign labor staffing solution, providing top quality seasonal employees in the hospitality/hotel industry, construction and landscaping fields.”

Excited by the prospect of having a job, she met with a recruiter in Manila who told her to obtain a B1 visa, which grants temporary entrance into the U.S. for workers. She was told she had to obtain it on her own, so she paid all the necessary fees. The first distressing sign that things weren’t what they were advertised as was when they allegedly forced her to pay a $3000 placement fee.

“They would not set my departure if I [didn’t] comply with that [payment],” Corral shared with the Asian Journal at the MEMS summit. “So I didn’t have a choice because I already had my work visa and I was so excited to go to the U.S.!”

However, Corral didn’t know at the time that the Philippine office of NWPI was ordered to shut down by the Philippine government for illegal practices — including charging excessive placement fees — just the year before. However, because that government order was “executory”, NWPI was still allowed to operate as a business.

Within a few months, Corral eventually made it to the U.S., in Sidney, Montana, where she was to work as a housekeeper at a Best Western hotel. She said that her recruiter had promised her a number of things: free lodging and transportation, 38 to 40 hours a week and earnings of up to $1,000 every paycheck.

None of those things were true. With five other employees (men and women), she had to pay $360/month rent to share one bedroom with three other people. She had to pay for her bus fare on her own dime. And she was working less than half the hours she was promised, to which her recruitment North Dakota-based agent advised her to get other odd jobs like cooking in restaurants, which was not a part of her contract.

For two years, she continued to work and every time she needed to renew her contract, she would be bombarded with excessive fees that she reluctantly paid to the agent who she had never met in person.

In 2015 when her contract was set to expire, the agent told her and the other employees that there were no official job orders and that they had to renew their visas. However, while the visas were processing, they were asked to work, which all the employees knew was illegal and opened them up to the possibility of deportation.

“It was really scary now because think about it: we’re in Montana where the Canadian border is so close and border patrol is so near,” Corral said. “So we were just sneaking [around] while cleaning rooms because we might be captured by border patrol and be deported, so our agent advised us to not mingle with anyone else and not talk to family and inform them what was going on. I felt like a prisoner at that point. We all knew this wasn’t what we were promised, all this trouble, so we didn’t know what to do at that point.”

When the recruiter told her there were no more job orders, she felt “lost.” It wasn’t until she contacted a friend in New York, who was a trafficking victim, that she realized that she, too, had been a victim of human trafficking.

She relocated to New York where she learned about modern-day trafficking tactics and is now an external membership officer for Migrante New York.

“You don’t think that these things can happen to you, and I really didn’t think it would happen to me and at the time [I was working] I didn’t know that was human trafficking. I felt it was unfair, but you know, you do everything you can do, especially when you’re working in a different country. I was just looking for work to support my family like anyone else, and then all this happened, you know?” Corral remarked.

Trafficking of human beings, as a whole, is the world’s second most profitable underground economic enterprise, generating a globally estimated $150 billion every year, according to the International Labor Organization (ILO), a tripartite of the United Nations that oversees global labor standards.

The ILO has also estimated that there are 40.3 million victims of human trafficking around the world, according to a global estimates study released in September 2017. Of those who are trafficked, 75 percent of them are women.

Another survey from the Walk Free Foundation found that there was an estimated 401,000 Filipinos living in modern slavery in 2015. Moreover, of the 10 million overseas Filipino workers (OFW), many reported being subjected to trafficking, commercial sexual exploitation and forced labor throughout the world.

If you or anyone you know may be a victim of human trafficking in the U.S., the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline is available 24/7 at 1 (888) 373-7888. You may also text “HELP” or “INFO” at 233733.

Klarize Medenilla

Klarize Medenilla is a staff writer and reporter for the Asian Journal. You can reach her at [email protected].

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