When Avelino Reloj left the Philippines for a job as a hotel janitor in Missouri, United States, he felt a world of possibilities was opening up. He quit his job as a house keeper in Cebu City, borrowed 400,000 pesos (US$7,700) for the trip, and bade farewell to the clear blue water and white sand that his home country is so famous for. For Reloj, life in the Philippines had been a far cry from such idyllic postcard images – at 27, he was struggling to build a home or start a family.

“I thought America was the land of gold and silver, and the land of opportunities,” he recalls.

But soon after he arrived on US soil his American dream turned into a nightmare. Rather than Missouri, he found himself in Florida working as a room attendant in a hotel, without the salary or perks he had been promised. A human trafficker posing as an employment agent had helped Reloj find his job – the trafficker kept Reloj’s passport and threatened to deport him if he didn’t continue to work. 

So Reloj continued, out of equal parts fear of the trafficker’s threat and the debt he had already amassed. There was no way he could return home.

Month after month, and sometimes under the threat of a gun, Reloj was forced on a string of precarious jobs – in states as far afield as South Carolina, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia.

Reloj has since escaped – he now lives in safety in California – but his case is just one of hundreds in which Filipinos have been trafficked to the United States with bogus job offers. 

Some victims end up in dead-end jobs or with no work at all, others find themselves trapped in the households of wealthy Americans, expatriates, diplomats and the officers of international organisations.

And all this in the America of President Donald Trump, who has long made stronger controls on migration central to his agenda. But while Trump has occasionally spoke about human trafficking, the topic took a back seat when he visited the Philippines in November to meet his counterpart Rodrigo DuterteInstead, Trump hailed the relationship with the Southeast Asian country, one of America’s most long-standing partners in Asia, as “great”. 

There were no official statements about the abuse Filipinos workers face in America as the two presidents shared toasts and posed for photos. No attempt to address the human rights issues both nations face, despite the statistics that show a dire reality for those who dare to cross oceans to live in America.

Last year, 352 Filipinos received help from the US Department of Health’s Trafficking Victim Assistance Programme. In spite of the distance, Filipinos accounted for more of those receiving aid than any other nation, including Mexico, Honduras and El Salvador – some of the countries targeted by Trump’s strict migration policies.

Martina E. Vandenberg, a human rights lawyer and president of the Human Trafficking Pro Bono Legal Centre in the US, says various factors have left Filipino workers particularly vulnerable.

“The power imbalance between employers and domestic workers is great and it’s particularly pronounced with Filipino workers,” says Vandenberg, who has represented several domestic workers exploited by diplomats. On the top of that, “they are strongly encouraged by their own government to remit money to their families back home. That forces the victims to tolerate levels of abuse that would be unthinkable.”

The remittances of some 10 million Filipinos living abroad set a record last year. 

According to the central bank of the Philippines, cash remittances increased 4.3 per cent to US$28.1 billion, while remittances from the United States rose 5.5 per cent.

But while overseas workers are an essential part of the Philippines’ economy, they often become victims of unscrupulous recruitment agencies even before they leave home. 

“The Philippines is planked by unethical and corrupt labour brokers who send abroad people with the full knowledge that they will be exploited and abused. The lack of accountability is a national shame,” says Vandenberg.

Cases of abused domestic workers in the Middle East and Asia regularly make the headlines, leading many Filipinos to believe – often falsely – that Western countries offer better alternatives to the exploitation they face elsewhere. 

The lack of accountability is a national shame
Martina E. Vandenberg, a human rights lawyer 

Canada and the US, seen as prosperous and developed nations, are often top of the list for those seeking higher-paid jobs and eventually citizenship. 

“Many Filipinos dream about going to America because they think their life will be like they see on TV,” says Holly Allan, director of the Hong Kong-based advocacy group Help for Domestic Workers.

Official statistics show that, last year alone, the US granted 234,972 non-immigrant visas, which included work visas. The Commission on Filipinos Overseas estimates there are more than 3.5 million living in the US – making it by far the largest overseas community of Filipino workers.

Allan, who is originally from the Philippines, knows of workers in Hong Kong who were scammed out of money after paying fees to get a job in the US.

She says domestic workers go “in search of greener pastures and believe they will have better protection in America, better living standards, higher wages”. 

Too often, what awaits them is a far less rosy picture.

According to the US state department, the top three countries of origin for human trafficking victims in America are the US itself, Mexico and the Philippines. Migrant labourers, undocumented workers and domestic helpers in diplomatic households are “particularly vulnerable populations”.

The US granted 13,856 “T-visas”, which were designed for victims of human trafficking, out of 18,917 applications over the past 15 years, according to official statistics. But the government did not provide a breakdown by countries of origin.

Deceived, in debt

In Los Angeles, the Pilipino Workers Centre has identified an increasing number of trafficking victims in recent years, partly due to growing awareness. “They are mostly labour trafficking victims and, unlike back in the day, we have seen more male [victims]. Most of them work for the hospitality and agriculture industries,” says Aurora Andalajao, the centre’s Human Trafficking Programme Coordinator. She has encountered victims across the country, from Arizona, Nevada and Wyoming in the west to New York, Virginia and Florida in the east.

‘I trafficked women at a famous Hong Kong nightclub’

In almost every single case, she has seen recruiters going to great lengths to deceive workers, pushing them into serious debt to gain leverage. “They are promised good salaries and lodging, but when they arrive the reality is different … Many are recruited from [Philippine] mountain provinces, it’s their first time travelling abroad, so they are not familiar with the culture and there’s a language barrier too.”

Andalajao says most are psychologically abused. “They are told not to talk to anyone. They are reminded: ‘You owe me money. You came here because of me.’”

Two years ago, in Houston, Texas, the mayor’s office launched a pioneering effort to combat human trafficking. Constance Rossiter, the YMCA’s programme director for trafficked persons assistance, says her organisation has dealt with many cases in the city over the past five years in which Filipino workers found themselves in the US on the false promise of a job.

“They bring them here to work as teachers, nurses, in the construction or manufacturing industry. They are promised they will make money, they will get the green card and then they come here, there are not even jobs for them,” Rossiter says.

The NGO worker has encountered cases in which 30 people were put up in one apartment. “They can’t go back, they don’t have money for the ticket, they are in debt … They end up being undocumented, because the visas expire,” she says. “They are just stranded.”

Others are brought to the US – on work or tourist visas – to accompany employers from the Middle East or relatives seeking medical treatment in Houston. 

“They find themselves sitting in hospital rooms, not getting paid, being beaten,” Rossiter says. “Often they don’t know even know the name of their employers.”

Dodgy diplomats

In cities like Washington and New York, the exploitation of workers from the Philippines and other countries often takes a different shape.

Although there is no official data on how many victims or cases have been settled out of court, advocates in these cities say the majority of labour trafficking cases involve diplomats or officials from major international organisations who have abused their helpers.

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“In Washington DC, Virginia and Maryland, I would say 80 per cent of the forced labour cases that we see are cases involving either foreign diplomats or people who are stationed here with the World Bank or other international organisations,” says Vandenberg. “And it’s the same story in New York, where many cases involve people trafficked by diplomats, consular officials or people working at the United Nations.”

Many of the Filipino women who end up exploited in the US while working for foreign dignitaries are often made to believe they will earn US$2,000 a month, but end up making as little as US$100.

According to Vandenberg, many of these women are first hired in countries like the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Kuwait, and then brought to America.

“It’s cheaper to recruit a domestic helper to go to the Middle East. They stay there for a short period of time and then they apply for a visa to the US. The problem is that the period of time in Saudi or Kuwait is designed to create intense fear in the heart of the domestic worker. It’s designed to break them, to show that they have no rights … The kafala system is a powerful tool,” says Vandenberg, referring to the sponsorship system used in many Middle Eastern countries, under which workers are almost totally dependent on employers.

The poor conditions many workers face in these countries were highlighted last month when the body of a Filipino domestic worker was found in a freezer of an abandoned flat in Kuwait.

Once the workers arrive in the United States, they fear being sent back to the Middle East. Life in America, however, gradually gets tougher – and their employers enjoy diplomatic immunity.

“A visa that ties the worker to an employer, isolation, an employer who has immunity … these are situations that allow trafficking to flourish,” says Jean Bruggeman, executive director of Freedom Network USA, a national alliance of advocates working with trafficking survivors.

After arriving in America, many victims are not fed properly, not allowed time off and are unable to receive medical help. Some have their passports confiscated or salaries withheld and are prevented from getting in touch with family and friends. Vandenberg has encountered cases involving physical and sexual violence. “But most of the control is through threatening”.

Claims often involve tens of thousands of dollars, if not hundreds, in back wages. “The audacity of diplomats to think they can come to the United States and have no accountability is obnoxious,” says Vandenberg.

A waiting game

It is nearly impossible to know the true scale of the problem, as many victims are too afraid to speak up and many claims don’t even make it to court.

“What we have in public records are the cases in which victims had the courage to file claims against the trafficker in open court. There are many more cases that are resolved behind the scenes,” says Vandenberg.

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There have been claims brought against diplomats from a whole host of nations, including from Kuwait, Qatar, Bangladesh and India.

Corruption within the embassies and top-level pressure are some of the hurdles victims face to achieve justice. “To go to embassies is sometimes dangerous, in particular if your traffickers are from the same country,” Vandenberg says.

Case workers are diligent, but political interference may come from the top. “They interview the victims and most take a victim-centred approach. The political interference happens at a much higher level,” she says.

John Freeman, a special agent for the Criminal Investigations Division at the state department, says he has never dropped a case due to political pressure in almost two decades on the job. “We have never been told to stop an investigation because it was too politically sensitive. But in some cases we know we may not be able to get into the courtroom, because there is not enough evidence.”

Freeman says most investigations last between one and four years. “Building trust with the victims is one of the challenges of our investigations,” he adds.

When full immunity is granted, domestic workers must wait for the diplomats to leave the US, so they can file a civil case. “If a diplomat commits a crime in the US, the Department of Justice or other law enforcement agency has to determine whether they would prosecute that diplomat but for diplomatic immunity. If so, the US will go to the sending state and say: we want you to waive the immunity. In 99.9 per cent of cases, the diplomat’s government will say no,” Vandenberg says. “It’s a waiting game … When they leave, their immunity is gone.”

Last year, two Filipino domestic workers sued a German diplomat and his wife for violating US labour laws, including non-payment of overtime. In November, their case was dismissed due to diplomatic immunity.

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Without a government waving its diplomats’ immunity, the US government can’t proceed with a criminal case, which is generally quicker than a civil one. And even civil cases can only be brought if the trafficking survivor is able to connect with pro-bono lawyers.

“On the civil side, we sue for damages in these cases. Some cases end in significant judgments, many more end in settlements. It is fair to say that in the vast majority of cases, the victims recover damages, either through a judgment or a settlement. The facts of these cases are often so egregious, we rarely lose,” Vandenberg says.

WATCH: What is it like to sleep like a foreign domestic worker in Hong Kong?

When a victim wins a case and a diplomat refuses to pay up, public money is sometimes used to cover costs, as the official’s country of origin must take responsibility. 

Stuck on repeat

In 2008, the US Congress passed new legal protections to prevent foreign domestic workers from being abused. Every foreign domestic helper working for a diplomat or international organisation employee must have a written contract and must be paid by bank transfer and not cash. In addition, the State Department launched a pilot programme – only in Washington – requiring these workers to attend an interview a few months after arriving in the US.

However, some diplomats have already been found circumventing the rules by depositing the money in a bank account only later to withdraw it.

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“I think having more regular check-ins with domestic workers is a good idea to start preventing abuses, and providing more information about their rights from the beginning so they know who to contact. That prevents the isolation,” says Katherine Soltis, an attorney at Ayuda. This non-profit organisation, which works with low-income immigrants in Washington, helped 27 Filipinos in the past two years.

But despite the new measures, the US has not acted against countries who are repeat offenders.

“What the US has not done, and what I think shows a lack of moral courage, is that it has refused to follow the law and suspend countries with history and records of exploitation,” Vandenberg says, referring to a law introduced in 2008. “We have provided to the US government multiple countries with credible cases of abuse and, in 10 years, how many countries were suspended officially from the A3 and G5 visa programme [that governs special visas for employees of diplomats]? That would be zero,” she says.

WATCH: Hong Kong domestic workers ‘treated as slaves’: Amnesty

For survivors, like Reloj, there is much that governments in both the US and in the Philippines can do. “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,” Reloj says.

Referring to officials from the Philippines, Reloj, who is now an advocate for trafficking victims at the Los-Angeles-based non-profit group CAST, says: “It will affect some oligarchies that are part of the government and that are pocketing money. We are still educating them … Only one third of the door is open.”

Public perceptions also need to change. Trafficking victims are not always locked up, as the popular imagination has it. “There is a silent message in your mind that keeps coming back: ‘never talk to strangers, never talk to strangers’,” says Reloj. “There is an invisible tape in your mouth, an invisible handcuff in your hands and in your feet that you can’t get away from.” 

Raquel Carvalho was one of 20 journalists taking part in the 2018 Foreign Press Centre’s reporting tour on human trafficking. She received a grant from the US State Department to travel to Washington DC, Houston and Los Angeles