A young woman brought me green tea and sliced dragon fruit as I waited for the twins to return home from school for their English lesson. Her skin was darker than that of the family, and her Chinese was choppy and awkward. When the parents were around, she moved quickly through the room; collecting dishes and refilling glasses. When they were away, she lingered, answering my questions. I learned that she had left her two children in the care of her parents, and had come to Taiwan in order to make enough money to support them. The $100-200 a month she made as a domestic worker in Taiwan was far more than she had been able to make at home in the Philippines. She quickly confided in me that she was only given one day off per week, had to sleep on the floor in the children’s room, and could not afford to visit her family during her two-year contract. She urged me not to mention anything to the family; she wanted to keep her job and secure a strong letter of recommendation. Although her work was voluntary, her story made it easy for me to imagine cases of domestic servants being forced to work without pay.
On Wednesday I attended a luncheon on human trafficking, hosted by the Johns Hopkins University, Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Relations. In his keynote, Ambassador Luis C. de Baca, the State Department’s Director of the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, discussed the recently released 2010 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report. The report covered 177 countries, rating each for compliance with the U.N.’s anti-trafficking protocol. It included the U.S. for the first time.
I was surprised that 90% of persons trafficked work as laborers. I had thought that the percentage of people forced to work as prostitutes would be higher than 10%. Ambassador de Baca claimed that no matter where women are forced to work- fields, factories, houses, or brothels- they are sexually abused. He explained that since 1995, he has never seen a female human trafficking case that did not involve some form of sexual abuse.
I had heard before accounts of pimps exploiting women domestically, but not cases of labor trafficking in the United States. Ambassador de Baca mentioned the story of Luis Gutierrez, a deaf man who was trafficked from Mexico to the United States when he was 15. In exchange for room and board, he and 56 other deaf people had to give up all of the money they earned selling key chains. “We were like slaves…It was very frustrating. We couldn’t talk to the cops. It was heartbreaking,” Gutierrez said. He now works as a janitor at the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. Through my own research, I came across the case of Zoraida Pena Canal, who was trafficked to the U.S. from Peru, and forced to cook, clean, and provide child care for nearly two years without pay. In many ways Zoraida’s situation was like a more extreme version of the life of the woman I’d met in Taiwan. The women had the same kind of work, but unlike Zoraida, the Taiwanese woman had entered into her work contract knowingly, voluntarily, and legally. In Zoraida’s case, there was no contract. Luckily for Zoraida, local residents helped her escape, and her captor was recently sentenced to 5 years imprisonment and ordered to pay $123,750 in restitution. Ambassador de Baca emphasized the rarity of such prosecutions, as well as the poor treatment of victims of human trafficking, who are often imprisoned rather than helped.
Situations like Zoraida’s should not be ignored in the United States—or anywhere else for that matter. Combating involuntary servitude, one of the most outrageous infringements of individual liberty, should be a priority.