Trafficking survivors speak up at summit: ‘We are not slaves anymore’

Survivors find their voice, share their stories. Photo: Gabriela USA

Survivors find their voice, share their stories. Photo: Gabriela USA

By Irma Bajar and Zarah Vinola

“The officer explained I was a victim of ‘human smuggling’. I said, ‘No sir.’ I did not know at this time that I was trafficked or that you can smuggle people like this.”

One teacher, who would not offer her name in fear of retaliation from the recruiter against her family in the Philippines, shared her story at the May 10 human trafficking summit in Queens.

She was one of about 200 Filipino public school teachers who were recruited and offered work visas to teach in Washington D.C. Many victims paid up to $80,000 in processing fees to recruiters who promised them work papers. Not only did they end up jobless and undocumented, they also ended up deeply in debt.

“We share our stories because modern-day slavery is happening around the world and in the U.S. We want to be part of ending it and making change,” said Fen Ecleo, co-chairperson of Gabriela Washington D.C. and a trafficking survivor.

Ecleo spoke at the Summit on Human Trafficking: Communities Mobilizing Against Modern-Day Slavery, which listened to stories of abuse, survival and calls for justice. The one-day conference was organized by St. James Episcopal Church, the National Alliance for Filipino Concerns and Gabriela USA.

Participants included survivors of human trafficking, community and service organizations, church groups, and notable public figures such as former “Miss Saigon” actress Monique Wilson, who is the global director for the One Billion Rising Campaign; Reverend Ray Bonoan of Holy Spirit Church in Florida, DJ Arucan of Gabriela Women’s Partylist of the Philippines, and Public Advocate Letitia James.

The summit highlighted the experiences of trafficked survivors from the Asia-Pacific region who had been lured to work in big cities in the United States. Reverend Ray Bonoan shared stories of sex trafficking from Florida and discussed the rescue assistance provided by the Florida Coalition Against Human Trafficking which is raising awareness on the issue.

Another survivor, Janet Gardose, who is co-chairperson for Gabriela D.C. said, “All I want is for our recruiter to go back to jail and be prosecuted. The summit is just the beginning of more campaign work until both the Philippine government and U.S. government act as soon as possible and justice is served.”

Just days before the summit took place, a convicted illegal recruiter and human trafficker named Isidro Rodriguez was released from prison in the Philippines. Rodriguez is believed to be behind the recruitment of hundreds of Filipino teachers, many of whom ended up with bogus jobs in Washington D.C.

“We are asking for support for the case of trafficked teachers who were victims of Isidro Rodriguez. It’s important that we continue to be united in order to continue our fight for justice,” said Ecleo.

“We are not slaves anymore, we are free,” said Elma Manliguez, a domestic worker who was trafficked by her former employer, a Merrill Lynch executive. She said she was held practically a prisoner in her employer’s basement in Queens for two years, but she managed to escape and seek help from community organizations.

The organizers said more conferences are being planned to keep the pressure on the U.S. and Philippine governments to act more decisively on addressing human trafficking.

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