Domestic Workers and Human Trafficking

Every now and then, tales of horrific abuse suffered by domestic servants make the news. These stories involve people who had come to the United States in search of a better life, at the very least a decent job, but instead found themselves exploited and enslaved, oftentimes by their own kind.

It is difficult to accept that human trafficking still occurs in this day and age but the reality is that it is quite prevalent. Only a few cases get reported, much less prosecuted in court. Two recent reports of domestic worker abuse tell us that slavery is alive even here in the United States.

Last week a Filipino couple from Bellingham, Washington was sentenced to prison for hiring and harboring an illegal alien. The husband and wife were accused of recruiting a Filipina to be their live-in servant, making her work seven days a week, subjecting her to verbal abuse and threats and paying her only $200 to $240 per month. This went on for three years until she escaped the household in September 2009.

The court papers showed that after arriving in the U.S., the victim’s passport and travel documents were confiscated by the couple, and that she worked 18 hours a day, seven days a week. The case began as a deportation proceeding against the domestic worker until the authorities found out that she was a victim of human trafficking.

The couple pleaded guilty to charges of harboring an alien for financial gain and unlawful employment of an alien. The husband was sentenced to 6 months of home detention with electronic monitoring, while the wife was sentenced to four months in prison and 100 hours of community service during 2 years of supervised release. They were also made to pay the victim $57,000 in restitution.

Another recent incident of domestic worker abuse involved live-in caregivers in Southern California. The Filipino husband-and-wife team recruited workers in the Philippines to work at their elder care facility in Paso Robles, California. Some of the aliens worked 24-hour shifts for less than the minimum wage and lived in substandard conditions, with some of them being forced to sleep in sofas and closets. They were threatened with arrest and deportation if they ever tried to escape.

The couple pleaded guilty to conspiracy  to harbor illegal aliens and they were made to pay at least $500,000 to the ten victims.

And who could forget the leading forced labor case of U.S. v. Calimlim, which told us of the Filipino maid who for almost twenty years was kept in the basement and hidden by the family from everyone’s view?  The defendant couple was recently ordered to pay the victim $1 Million in damages on top of $960,000 in restitution.

The Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act was enacted by Congress in 2000. This law enhanced the protection of trafficking victims by establishing T and U nonimmigrant visa categories for eligible victims who assist in the investigation and prosecution of the criminal activity. Both types of visas can lead to permanent resident status.

The benefits given under the VTVPA are meant to restore the victims’ dignity by meeting their humanitarian needs. By taking away their vulnerability to deportation, the law empowers these victims who in turn help bring traffickers to justice and ensure that civil and human rights are upheld.