Kapit sa Patalim
Trafficking in the Land of the Free
Santiago J. Arnaiz
Eleonor Ramos couldn’t sleep at all that night. The sound of sirens was keeping her up. Somewhere outside, a police car was approaching. Cold sweat dripping down her neck, she sat motionless. They were coming for her. She knew it.
In another part of the room sat a pair of eviction letters. Her employers were supposed to have paid the rent. They docked her wages $150 for it every two weeks. The sirens grew louder. It had been three days since the water and electricity had been cut, and all the food in the refrigerator had spoiled. Ramos shifted slowly, careful not to make a noise. Against the wall, she could see the subtle rise and fall of her husband’s silhouette, lying prone on the bed bug-ridden mattress they shared. She couldn’t see his face, but she knew he was awake. Their two co-workers in the room next door must have been awake, too. None of them slept. How could they, with the constant fear of arrest and deportation hanging over them. She held her breath, afraid to make a sound.
The sirens passed. She waited for the silence to set in again before letting out a sob. Ramos thought of her three children waiting for her back in the Philippines, how she had promised to visit them every year. She thought about the crippling debt that waited for her as well – how, after more than six months working for her current employers, she and her husband were barely making enough money to survive, much less pay it back. They had sacrificed so much to get here, to this dingy apartment they shared with two strangers.
“Sometimes, you can’t help but be pushed to tears thinking about what you’ve experienced,” Ramos said.
It’s a brisk February afternoon in Queens, New York, when Eleonor Ramos recounts her journey to America. It had been eight years since she left the Philippines in 2009, in the hopes of finding work as a seasonal laborer. She had planned to stay in the United States for no more than three years, working wherever she could to make enough money to get her children back home through school. She and her husband had applied through the H2B visa program, a program designed for temporary workers doing seasonal, non-agricultural jobs in the U.S. At the time, their only focus was getting to America and providing their family a better life. They had no idea they had just sold themselves into the modern slave trade.
It’s a scenario that plays out every day around the world. According to a report published in 2012 by the International Labor Organization, there were a recorded 18.7 million victims of human trafficking in the world who, like the Ramoses, were trapped in jobs from which they could not leave.
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime has identified North America as one of the largest destinations for trafficking across regions. Through the use of fraud, force or coercion, men and women looking to find a better life abroad are forced to work indefinitely for little to no pay as modern day slaves.
In its most recent Trafficking in Persons Report, the U.S. Department of State acknowledged the continued risks of human trafficking within the nation’s borders. Victims hail from almost every region of the world, and of the foreign countries identified as points of origin for these men and women, the Philippines tops the list.
Like the Ramoses, most victims of labor trafficking arrive on U.S. soil legally through temporary worker visas like the H2B. These visas allow foreign workers to stay in the country for a defined period of time and on the condition that they remain employed by a sponsor.
These temporary visas give employers access to a rich international labor market and provide overseas workers with job opportunities they often lack in their home countries.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services approves H2B visas for periods of up to three years. Job contracts for H2B workers, however, usually only last between six to nine months as these visas are intended for seasonal work. So towards the end of their contract periods, workers begin looking for other employers willing to take them on and sponsor their continued stay in the U.S. The anxiety of not finding new work and getting deported often pushes these people into desperation.
This has set the stage for international syndicates that have cropped up to ensnare workers in the loopholes of these temporary visa programs, turning them into an underground railroad for the modern slave trade.
Ramos and her husband found themselves caught in this system. Their employers had hidden the fact that they failed to renew their workers’ required work visas. But even after the Ramoses found out, there was nothing they could do. In the eyes of the law, they were illegally employed and shouldn’t have been working in America. But if they stopped working, their employers had threatened to have them arrested and deported. They were trapped.
“They rule you,” said Ramos. “You end up constantly afraid because you really have no choice but to follow them.”
There is an old Filipino saying that goes, “Ang taong nagigipit, kahit sa patalim kumakapit.” Translated: “Pushed to the point of desperation, a man will find anything to hold onto, even the edge of a blade.” According to Geraldine Mendez, a lawyer in the chief prosecution division at the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA), it’s desperation that makes stories like Ramos’ possible.
“It’s the search for a greener pasture,” Mendez said. “It’s basically wanting to go abroad, to work abroad, and finding any opportunity to do it.”
The POEA provides a number of services to protect Filipinos looking for foreign employment from abuse and exploitation. That comes with a very strict, and often time-consuming, set of protocols that make sure any and all jobs offered are up to standard. So if an employer offers a potential domestic worker anything below $400 a month, the minimum amount stipulated by the POEA, that contract would be flagged and disapproved.
As a result, a black market for foreign job opportunities has emerged. Circumventing the government’s rigid protocols, workers are ensured immediate deployment. Here, Filipinos willing to make compromises on salaries and working conditions aim to find a way out of their desperate situations at home. But along with the protocols, go the protections. The concern is no longer if there are any jobs available, but how much one is willing to risk for it.
The human trafficking industry in the Philippines is built on a type of shadow syndicate that includes job agencies, government workers and port authorities, working together to fuel the international market for exploitable workers.
“If you need a new name, they could get a new name for you,” Mendez said. “They could easily get birth certificates of people unrelated to you and allege they are your relatives. Once you have the workers – say you’re the one processing the documents – then you’d throw the ball to another person in charge of making sure that the person would be able to go through immigration in the airports or in the seaports.”
But often the troubles begin well before workers even make it out of the country. Of the many means by which workers become enslaved by their traffickers, the most common is debt bondage. Like Ramos, many of these workers are charged unreasonable fees by recruiters, forcing them into crippling debt. The years that follow are spent working to pay that debt back.
Ramos, 42, was born and raised in Santa Cruz, Laguna. There she lived with her husband, Ferdinand, 43, and their three children, Trixia, Trina and Troy. She worked as a department clerk for a semiconductor company called Amkor Technology, supervising the assembly line. Ferdinand worked as a seaman on a crew ship and was often away from home. Together, they pulled in about 40,000 pesos a month, approximately $800 U.S.
As hard as they were working, they struggled to pay all their bills. “The money I was getting from my salary wasn’t enough to support my kids’ schooling and everyday expenses,” Ramos said.
Like many Filipinos looking for work in a land of limited opportunity, Ramos thought to apply abroad. In 2016, the POEA documented that over 2.5 million Filipino workers were working overseas. These men and women spend months, if not years, away from the Philippines, toiling in strange lands in order to provide for their families back home.
“Even if it was really hard to leave our children at their young age, we decided to leave the country,” Ramos said.
Ramos’ co-workers often spoke of friends who had found great-paying work in the U.S. Intrigued, she asked how they had managed to make it there and was referred to a Manila-based agency called Northwest Placement. Excited by the prospect, she convinced her husband to contact them and apply for a job. He did, and in 2007 was sent to Michigan to work as a housekeeper.
Buoyed by the prospect of improving her situation and reuniting with her husband, Ramos reached out to Northwest Placement in July 2008. Initially the agency played up how easy and great the opportunity to work in the U.S. would be, she said, but the next few months became quite taxing on Ramos and her family.
Over the course of her application, the agency charged her over $3,000 in processing and miscellaneous fees. As they had already spent most of their savings sending her husband abroad, Ramos was forced to take out a loan from a local bank using her mother’s home as collateral.
It was only until much later that Ramos discovered that the H2B visa regulations prohibited job agencies like Northwest from charging placement fees. But by then, she and her family were already thousands of dollars in debt.
“We were just following orders,” she said. “This was our first time to apply for an H2B. It was only when we were already in the U.S. that we realized the employers would pay the agency as well to process our papers. They were making money off of us anyway.”
In Jan. 2009, Ramos received a job offer from a company called Coastal Ventures making $7.50 an hour as a housekeeper at Holiday Inn on the Beach in Destin, Florida.
On Feb. 28, 2009, Ramos left the Philippines for the U.S., promising her children she’d be back to visit them as soon as her contract expired. “I only expected to work for three years, go home for vacation and see my children,” Ramos said. “What ended up happening was I stayed on for such a long time, seven and a half years.”
At the Holiday Inn in Destin, Florida, Ramos struggled to make enough money to send back home. Though the contract she signed promised 40 hours of work a week, her employers quickly began scaling that back. When the hotel had no guests, workers were sent home early. Ramos recalled one week when she only worked for seven hours and took home $50 for the week.
“I sacrificed a lot for myself to save money,” Ramos said. “The housekeepers would take the untouched food left behind during check-out and we’d take it home just so we had food. That’s all we had at the time. I canceled the transportation service and walked an hour each way to go to work and back to my apartment every day.”
Ramos worked in Destin for about six months. “I just persevered through it, thinking, maybe in the next cycle I’d have a better contract,” she said.
Ramos realized the housekeeping job in Florida just wasn’t going to be enough to pay back her debts and support her children. Towards the end of her contract period with Coastal Ventures, she started looking elsewhere. Her husband, Ferdinand, was moving back and forth between Michigan and Arizona at the time and though they kept in contact through phone calls and Skype, Ramos missed him. When he told her that a group of his co-workers were applying for new jobs through their agency DHI, she decided to join them.
Despite being hard on cash, Ramos said she and her husband each had to pay DHI a processing and insurance fee of $399. After wiring the money and sending their documents, Ramos got word that they had been secured housekeeping positions at another hotel in Florida. They were overjoyed.
The elation didn’t last long. On September 8, 2009, Ramos received an email from Wioletta Olszoweic, the program director of Hospitality and Catering Management Services, confirming their job offer. The job however, was in Louisiana, not Florida.
Through email exchanges, Ramos tried to clarify the details of their employment. Olszoweic and her agents never gave a straight answer. One message said it would be in Lafayette. Another said Bossier. When Ramos asked for a copy of the job offer, a document that should have listed the location, nature and payment of the work, none was provided.
“We were terrified, of course,” Ramos said. “You never know what could’ve happened, who these people were. We only conversed through email. We were worried if we had jobs there at all. And since we didn’t know them, we were worried if this was going to be a job that would take us to God knows where.”
Without any other prospects, they stuck with it. On October 4, 2009, Ramos flew to Shreveport, Louisiana, still unsure as to what her job with Hospitality and Catering Management Services would be. Ferdinand had already arrived, and they were reunited for the first time in four years.
The next morning, they were picked up by Anya Kempinska, a staff person of Hospitality and Catering Management Services, and brought to the apartment that would be their home. On the way, Kempinska explained that she was to be their supervisor and that they would be working as housekeepers at Boomtown Hotel and Casino in Bossier, Louisiana. She collected another $300 from each of them as a security deposit for the apartment and handed over their job contracts for signing. Ramos was alarmed that the forms were full of blank lines, to be filled in later by the management. With reservations, she signed the document and Kempinska explained to them the specifics of their job.
Hospitality and Catering Management Services promised the Ramoses 40-hour workweeks at $8 an hour, as well as a fully furnished apartment for the two of them. When they arrived at Alexis Park Apartments, however, what they found was a dingy, barren two-bedroom they shared with two other people working at the hotel. The apartment was completely empty, save for a table, three dirty mattresses and some food left in the cupboards by previous tenants.
“It was uncomfortable,” Ramos said. “There was nowhere to lie down. The beds, to be honest, they took them from the dump. You know how some people leave their old furniture there? Pretty much all our furniture came from that dump, by the garbage. We found out because there were other workers that they’d order to pick them up and bring it to the apartments.”
Ramos ended up spending most of her time at this apartment, as the 40-hour workweeks she was promised were cut down to 20-hour weeks with her pay scaled back accordingly.
All of this amounted to a terrible working environment, but one from which the Ramoses would find themselves unable to escape – a fact that their employers made very clear to them on an almost daily basis through emails and direct threats of deportation.
“They gave us letters saying, if you’re trying to find another employer, we are going to report you to immigration so your visas are cancelled and you’re deported,” Ramos said. “They often went to our apartments to check up on us and say the same.”
“It’s hard to know how serious that stuff is on the employer side,” said Sean McMahon, a lawyer from the Urban Justice Center that helped the Ramoses out of their situation. “It’s not like there’s some magical number they can call which will bring [immigration enforcement] down on their employees. But it is true that they could make a report and say that this person is undocumented.”
According to McMahon, the problems that the Ramoses faced centered on their temporary workers visas. These visas prevent the holder from legally staying in the country unless they’re working for their sponsor. This is meant to protect employers from runaway workers who might leave to find jobs elsewhere once in the country.
When Ramos’ first visa to work in Florida expired, Hospitality and Catering Management Services had promised to sponsor and roll over her and her husband’s H2B visas. As long as they were employed by this company, they could continue to live and work in the U.S. This gave Ramos’ employers considerable leverage over their workers, leverage they were more than willing to use.
Sitting in their apartment, the Ramoses would wait every day for a knock on their door. Kempinska, their supervisor, lived in the same compound as the workers and would visit each of their rooms, reminding them that if they ever thought of leaving – and they did so almost everyday – she would report them to Homeland Security and have them deported. Kempinska would accompany them to their workplace, often checking in on them and making her presence felt.
The Ramoses also began getting letters from the management echoing Kempinska’s threats. One letter from the company’s executive vice president Janece Burke read: “If we suspect you are leaving, we will go ahead and contact [the Department of Homeland Security] to cancel your status… We take our commitment to you very seriously and hope you do the same.”
But it was not until immigration enforcement actually did show up that Ramos realized how grave her situation was.
One day, word spread in the workplace of a raid being conducted by Homeland Security at Boomtown Hotel and Casino. By the end of the day, a large group of undocumented Mexican workers had been arrested and escorted off the premises. The effect this had on Ramos and her companions was profound.
“Sometimes we’d bump into police and we’d be terrified,” she said. “We were the only Filipinos in the area, so it would’ve been very easy for us to be singled out. That’s what we were terrified of, that we’d be approached by police and end up in jail.”
Other than never providing the Ramoses with their job offer, Hospitality and Catering Management Services never handed them their visas either. When pushed, the management would only say their visas were still under appeal.
In November 2009, after three months working for Hospitality and Catering Management Services, Ramos heard rumors that the workers’ visas had been denied by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. By Nov. 4, Burke, the Hospitality executive, sent a letter hoping to clarify the situation. “HCMS has properly filed your H2B extension with USCIS,” she wrote. “This means it can take up to 3-4 months before we hear whether or not the petition is approved.”
Unsatisfied with the response, Ramos and her co-workers did some digging of their own. One person in their group had a friend working in Immigration Services who secured a copy of a letter informing Hospitality and Catering Management Services that the visa application had been denied. The management had failed to prove that the jobs they were fielding workers for were seasonal and not permanent. Worse, they had misreported the job location and omitted payroll records for multiple months between 2007 to 2009.
The denial letter was dated Nov. 3, 2009, the day before Burke messaged her workers.
Now it was clear. The management was lying to them. And regardless of whether or not the Ramoses continued to work for Hospitality and Catering Management Services, they were officially undocumented workers.
“We were incredibly scared, to the point that we didn’t want to go out on our off-time, in case someone caught us and put us in jail,” Ramos said. “We ended up having no freedom to leave.”
The fear was crippling, and compounded by the fact that Ramos’ debt meant she could not afford to lose her job.
“I didn’t want the family to be homeless back home,” she said. “My mom lent me the deed to her home and in a moment, everything would’ve been gone. That would’ve been my fault. I was the one who used the money. I was thinking, I need to pay this back, even if there’s no money left for me here.”
McMahon stressed that it was her situation at home that pressured Ramos to stay on. “She was fearing real economic ruin in her home country based on her debt,” he said. The decision to put her mother’s home up as collateral was a gamble Ramos was regretting having made more and more each day. “It’s the kind of move that might make sense if the promises that you were told are true and you have a good job here. But if those promises fall through and you end up not getting paid at all or getting paid very low wages, then the debt just keeps mounting until it becomes impossible to pay.”
The pressure was building for Ramos. She was still not making enough money for her family back home, and now she was stuck working for abusive employers, unable to leave whether she wanted to or not.
According to Song Kim, a lawyer with the Asian American Legal Defense Fund, migrant workers like the Ramoses are especially vulnerable to abusive employers. “As soon as they come to the U.S., now they’re isolated,” she said. “They don’t have any social contacts. They don’t speak the language. They don’t know anything about the laws. And so they are now primed to be exploited.”
The employer must have known, said McMahon. “They had received the documentation stating that their visa renewal had been denied. But she was in the dark, all of the other workers were.”
The night they learned about the visa denial, Ramos and her coworkers were shocked – the full reality of their situation finally made clear. In the eyes of the law, they were illegally employed and shouldn’t have been working in America. But if they stopped working, their employers had threatened to have them arrested and deported. It seemed like they had no alternative.
That night, none of them could sleep. The anxieties were piling up on them. They were terrified of deportation, living in squalor and threatened with eviction. The landlords had sent them a pair of eviction letters claiming they had failed to pay their $625 monthly rent. Among the four of them in that apartment, the management had been collecting over $1,200, claiming that money would go towards paying the landlords. Ramos realized that their employers had found yet another way to cheat them.
The situation was dire, but Ramos was desperate. She held on, keeping her head down and reporting for work.
As the months rolled by and their work hours continued to dwindle, the steady stream of deportation threats went on, until suddenly, they stopped altogether. “They weren’t replying anymore to our emails,” Ramos said. “We stopped seeing Anya. They didn’t need us anymore. They already replaced us.”
By May 2010, the Ramoses found they had been assigned three more roommates in their already cramped apartment at Alexis Park. At that point, Ramos decided enough was enough. Despite the very real threat of deportation, she and her husband joined a coworker and left for New York.
Living in the basement of a contact’s home in Queens, the Ramoses took any jobs they could find to get by. Eleonor Ramos found work as a nanny and a housekeeper. Her husband worked laundry. While they were lucky enough never to have heard from their former employers again, they had more immediate problems. Having landed in New York, they were still undocumented, still unable to find work they desperately needed and still living in fear of deportation.
In 2013, Ramos was introduced by a friend to Juana Dwyer, a board member of the Damayan Migrant Workers Association. Founded in 2002 as a community support group for Filipino domestic workers, Damayan has since expanded into a grassroots community organization with 8,000 members and a dedicated campaign against the labor trafficking of Filipino workers. Through Damayan, the Ramoses met with lawyers from the Urban Justice Center and began their application for legal immigration.
Caught in the aftermath of forced labor, often with the burden of debt bondage in tow, securing legal status to live and work in the country is one of the best ways to alleviate the problems of labor trafficking survivors. Once legally permitted to stay in the U.S., survivors can finally look for decent work, the reason they set off on their journeys in the first place.
In 2018, the Department of Homeland Security granted T-visas – special visas for trafficking survivors – to 580 victims and 698 of their family members. Though these numbers haven’t changed much over the years, the Department of State has reported that these figures represent an overall decline in immigration relief, owing to a lack of support by law enforcement.
Human trafficking has garnered a lot attention in the U.S. following the passage of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act in 2000. But while law enforcement officers have cracked down heavily on the crime, their efforts have focused almost exclusively on sex trafficking cases, leaving victims of labor exploitation on the wayside.
A report released in 2014 by the Urban Institute, a Washington D.C.-based economic and social policy think tank, found that while the U.S. Department of Justice identified 64 percent of trafficking victims as victims of labor trafficking and 10 percent as victims of both labor and sex trafficking, labor trafficking cases accounted for only 17 percent of human trafficking cases handled by law enforcement.
The result is an entire group of workers exploited with relative impunity for their employers.
“Law enforcement going after labor trafficking doesn’t happen on the level that we need it to,” said Kim, of the Asian American Legal Defense. Currently, the laws on human trafficking place higher penalties on sex trafficking than on labor trafficking. “That’s really unfortunate,” Kim said. “When something is a ‘bigger’ crime under the law, law enforcement is going to go after it more, even though in reality, it’s not a worse thing.”
To end trafficking would require shutting down the means by which people get trafficked in the first place – both at the source and at the destination. The lack of accurate data and the need for international cooperation make the war against trafficking an especially complicated one to wage.
“The Philippines is a source country for trafficking in persons, owing to the rich supply of labor and desire for overseas work,” said Mendez of the POEA. While her government agency was only able to identify four cases of labor trafficking of Filipinos in 2015, the office has made great strides in attempting to address the issue. It shut down 12 unlicensed recruitment agencies that year – agencies similar to the one Ramos used – and conducted public seminars to educate potential applicants about the hazards of trafficking and the warning signs of illegal recruitment.
According to Kim, prevention happens through education. “Making sure people are aware of their rights, making sure they’re not putting themselves in these risky, vulnerable situations,” she said.
Kim, who has long advocated for policy reform in the U.S., said it is also essential that temporary worker visa programs like the H2B be restructured to prevent these types of abuses. “These are visas that are very protective of the sponsors, without having built-in protections for the people receiving the visas themselves.”
“Even if something bad happens to them, they are afraid to go to the police,” she added. “You have rights here as a worker. You have rights here as a victim of a crime.” In the U.S., grassroot community groups like Damayan play a vital role in helping survivors and educating workers on these rights.
Since 2011, the Damayan Migrant Workers Association has assisted over three dozen trafficking survivors escape their dire situations, find legal and social services and reunite with their families. As big an accomplishment as that is, it’s still an ongoing struggle. According to Rose Alovera, a board member at Damayan, the association handles anywhere from 30 to 40 trafficking cases at any given time.
On Oct 29, 2015, after a year of filing and investigations, poring over receipts and documents she had meticulously organized over the years, Eleonor Ramos was finally granted a T-Visa, awarding her, her husband and their children legal status in the U.S. After six years struggling to survive in the country, scrimping and saving for a better life for their family, Eleonor and Ferdinand Ramos were finally reunited with their three kids.
“I was shocked when I saw my children,” Eleonor Ramos said. After securing clearance to fly back to the Philippines for the first time in six years, she described the experience as surreal. “I asked myself: Are they really that grown up? When I left them, they were so small, my youngest was only seven.”
“I was so happy when I finally saw them,” she said. “I finally got to see my family, that they were healthy, that everything was alright. The work we do here in New York, my husband and I really work very hard, the result has been good. We’re able to put them through the schools they want to go to. We were able to put up a house back in the Philippines. I paid back the loans of my mom and got back the land title.”
Today, the Ramoses still live in New York City, in an apartment in Woodside, a Queens neighborhood home to a stretch of Filipino establishments called Little Manila. Eleonor Ramos is a full-time nanny, employed by a family in Brooklyn. Ferdinand Ramos works as a warehouse clerk. Their two youngest children, Trina and Troy, live with them and study at The International High School at LaGuardia Community College. Their eldest, Trixia, just finished her university studies in the Philippines, graduating with a bachelor of science in tourism management from the PATTS College of Aeronautics last April.
Eleonor Ramos had already missed so many of her children’s milestones, trading those memories for a better future for them. But when Trixia took the stage to get her diploma, her mother was finally there cheering from the audience.
On April 18, Ramos flew with her daughter back to New York – their family reunited and living together for the first time in almost ten years.
The Ramoses hope to continue working in the U.S., at least until their younger children finish their schooling and get settled. After that, they plan to retire back in the house they’ve built for themselves in the Philippines.
Eleonor and Ferdinand Ramos fought through and survived their experiences of labor trafficking. But while their perseverance was remarkable, their story is all too common. “I think people like me, they just want to work abroad,” Ramos said. “People just want to go to the U.S., but they don’t see the risks, what might happen. Even if they have to sell their homes, and they don’t even know what they’ll end up working as or how many hours they’ll have. Kapit sa patalim talaga.”
Despite all she’s suffered, Ramos said that had she known the actual risks she was facing back in 2009, she would have still chosen to find work in America. “I needed to work,” she said. “I needed to provide for my family.” Still, knowing what she knows now, she’d be more careful and more vigilant. “I’d be more bold in fighting for my rights,” she said. “Now that I have more experience, I know the rules involved in going to work abroad. I wouldn’t make the same mistakes.”