A Spotlight on the Plight of Trafficked Filipinos in Trump’s America

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In a report for the South China Morning Post, Raquel Carvalho writes about the plight of  Filipinos who are trafficked into the USA. They end up being exploited not only by illegal recruiters, but by the very wealthy in whose homes and offices they work.

Hundreds of Filipinos are trafficked into the US every year. They often come from remote provinces and are lured by promises of a good life and high salary, but are given only a fraction of the wages promised them and get deeply mired in debt. While many are moved from state to state in a string of low-paying, menial jobs, others actually end up in slave-like conditions in the wealthy homes and offices of US citizens, expatriates or diplomats, living in abject fear.

Somewhat ironically, this has all been happening under the nose of the President, Donald Trump, who made immigration controls a significant part of his electoral campaign. The President made no mention of the human trafficking and abuse of Filipino workers in the US when he came to the Philippines for a visit in November 2017, and met Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte.

In 2017, more Filipinos sought assistance from the US Department of Health’s Trafficking Victim Assistance Program than any other nationalities, despite the fact that countries such as Mexico or El Salvador, are much closer in distance to the US. The head of the US-based Human Trafficking Pro Bono Legal Centre, Martha E. Vandenberg, a human-rights lawyer, outlined the reasons why Filipinos are especially susceptible to human traffickers, which include a pronounced power inequality gap between domestic workers and their employers and the need to send money to help their families back home.

Many Filipino families depend on the income of their relatives working overseas for survival, and the economy of the Philippines has also greatly benefited from the amounts sent home. There are currently 10 million Filipinos working abroad. Remittances rose to US $28.1 billion last year, with the amount remitted from the US going up by almost 6 percent.

Unfortunately, the need for overseas employment has let many Filipinos fall prey to illegal recruitment schemes. Recruiters know that many of their countrymen sent abroad will be subject to abuse and exploitation.

Ms. Vandenberg says, “The lack of accountability is a national shame.”

There are myriad stories of Filipinos, among other nationals, being treated badly in parts of Asia and the Middle East, which has given rise to the perception that life as an overseas worker is better in Western countries, such as the US and Canada, and these countries remain as the most sought after by jobseekers who desire to work abroad.

However, this is not always the case.

In 2017, 234,972 non-immigrant US visas, including work visas, were issued to Filipinos. In fact, the biggest community of Filipino overseas workers is in the US, where over 3.5 Filipinos live and work.

Overseas workers sometimes take jobs in other countries, but consider this to be a mere stepping stone, since their dream is to work in US, where they think that living conditions are better. In many cases these dreams turn out to be nightmares.

The US State Department reports that that top three countries with the most number of human trafficking victims in America are the US itself, the Philippines and Mexico. It has also identified that migrant and undocumented workers, as well as domestic workers in diplomatic households, to be “particularly vulnerable populations.”

In the last 15 years, the US has given out 13,856 “T-visas” for human trafficking victims, but the countries from where the recipients of the visas came is undisclosed.

The Pilipino Workers’ Center in Los Angeles has seen the number of trafficking victims grow in the past few years, more of whom are men. They work in agriculture and hospitality industries and are labor trafficking victims, and have been in various jobs in the West and East Coasts. The victims are provincial recruits who are first time travelers who do not speak English well, and have ended up in considerable debt to their recruiters and employers. Many are abused psychologically as well, and are told not to speak to anyone.

In Houston, Texas, where an anti-human trafficking initiative was launched in 2016, many of the people who were helped were Filipinos with similar stories. Lured by promises of jobs and green cards, and then left stranded and undocumented when their visas expire.

In bigger cities, such as New York or Washington DC, the exploitation profile is different. Anti-trafficking advocates have reported that a large number of the cases they have handled involve domestic workers abuse from diplomats or officers of international organizations such as the United Nations or World Bank.

Some Filipinas earn as little as $100 a month in these households.

Others have first worked in Middle Eastern countries such as Qatar, Kuwait or the UAE, where they are subjected to the kafala system. This sponsorship process, where workers depend almost completely on their employers for everything, is used across the Middle East. The kafala system is powerful in showing domestic workers how little their rights are, and they end up fearful and submissive. It can be taken to extremes, as shown in February when a freezer in an apartment in Kuwaiti revealed the dead body of a Filipina domestic worker.

The women are initially relieved to be transferred to the US with their employers, but problems arise because many of these employers have diplomatic immunity. Executive director of Freedom Network USA, Jean Bruggeman, says, “A visa that ties the worker to an employer, isolation, an employer who has immunity … these are situations that allow trafficking to flourish.”

Some of the domestic workers for diplomats in the US receive insufficient food, disallowed days off or contact with their families and friends, have their passports taken from them or wages withheld, and have no access to medical help when they need it. There are also cases of sexual and physical abuse.

Many times, domestic workers claim back wages in the tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars. However, since fear and threats are the main weapons used against these workers, many times their complaints never even make it to the courts.

However, claims have been filed against diplomats from a whole slew of countries, such as India, Kuwait, Bangladesh and Qatar. What has impeded justice is corruption within these embassies, and sometimes, political interference as well.

Investigations usually take between one to four years, and often, immunity stands in the way, forcing victims to wait until abusive employers are actually out of the country until they can file complaints. In 2017, two domestic helpers form the Philippines endeavored to sue a diplomat and his wife, who were from Germany. The couple had not paid the helpers overtime pay, but the case was dropped due to diplomatic immunity.

There have been laws in place in the US since 2008 to protect the rights and wellbeing of domestic workers. For diplomats and the officials of international organizations, domestic workers must have employment contracts  as well as bank accounts for wages to be paid in bank transfers. Another measure to protect these workers is mandatory visits soon after they arrive in the US, as well as regular check-ins.

Some diplomats find a way around these rules, however, by controlling the blank accounts of their helpers. And the US government has not imposed any disciplinary action on countries with several and repeated cases of abuse.

Avelino Reloj, one a labor trafficking victim and now an advocate for his fellow Filipinos based in Los Angeles says, “Government agencies need to be more educated about human trafficking. They should give seminars to the workers in their countries of origin, post more information at the airport terminals, and lawmakers should also look more closely at the problem.”

He also stresses the point that perception needs to change, that human trafficking victims are not only the ones locked up or kept in chains. They may be picking fruit in the fields, or cleaning the houses of rich people in New York City.