Written by Alison Singh Gee:
Mary was a South American domestic worker living in Washington, D.C. with her employer, a female vice president of a large multinational corporation. Mary took care of her employer’s children but, as neighbors noticed, rarely left the house. One nearby resident, another South American, had seen Mary and tried to strike up a friendly conversation with her, but the young woman demurred, saying her employer would get angry if she saw her talking to anyone.
The neighbor surmised the nanny could be in trouble, so she spoke to a friend, Bob C., who worked with labor contracts. Bob asked to meet Mary, who had to wait until her employer was out for an evening before she could sneak away. “It turned out she was sleeping in the basement on a box spring for about four years,” Bob says. “She worked from Monday through Saturday, without pay. Her employer told her that she should feel lucky she was living in this country, and that she should be grateful for the roof over her head.”
Perpetrators of labor trafficking often use this kind of reasoning, as well as threats of deportation. To ensure trafficking victims have legal recourse, the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act stipulates non-immigrant visas for foreign nationals in this position. However, many exploited workers don’t know about this protection.
Looking over Mary’s contract, Bob shook his head: It was clear that the employer was in flagrant violation of the agreement. Mary’s job was to take care of the children, but she was also supposed to have certain days off and get paid a living wage. She was not contracted to cook meals or clean the house, both of which she did, around the clock if necessary. At that point, Mary was owed between $80,000 to $100,000 in back pay. “This got me so angry,” says Bob. But there was more.
Mary told Bob that at one point during her employment, she began suffering from severe stomach pain. Her employer dropped her off curbside at the emergency room and left her there for four days, during which time she racked up enormous hospital bills. Then, instead of covering the costs, the employer tacked up fliers all over the neighborhood offering Mary’s house-cleaning services in return for payment, which would then go toward the hospital costs.
Incensed, Bob called the national human trafficking resource center, which is run by Polaris Project, a D.C.-based organization committed to combating human trafficking, also known as modern slavery. Polaris reports that 21 percent of the calls they receive relate to labor trafficking and that domestic servitude is the most common call in the category. Yet stories like Mary’s are too little known by the general public.
The Polaris Project credits tip callers like Bob for much of the hotline’s success. “What a difference a single call can make to someone’s life,” says Sarah Jakiel, deputy director in charge of the hotline.
The hotline received 20,000 calls in 2012 alone, a 265 percent increase over 2007. “Human trafficking is so diverse—we have gotten calls from all 50 states, from Ohio to New York to Texas,” says Sarah Jakiel, deputy director in charge of the hotline. “Callers might be a 13-year-old girl who has a violent pimp, or an FBI agent from Sacramento who needs access to shelter for a client, or a community member who wants to access our training program.”
According to Polaris, there are more individuals in slavery today than there were at the height of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
Because of Bob’s call, federal law officials got involved, taping Mary’s conversations with her employer, and moving her to a safe house. She received subsidized housing and courses in English, personal finance, computers, and job training. She is now employed full-time, drives her own car, and is nearing completion on her GED. “Mary went from being a docile subservient person to someone who has blossomed,” says Bob.
*Certain names have been changed