"My Family's Slave," a controversial personal essay published in The Atlantic last week, brought the oft-ignored issue of domestic labor trafficking to national attention.
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The internet was abuzz last week when the late Alex Tizon's piece "My Family's Slave" appeared in the Atlantic. Spanning Tizon's whole life, the article told his version of the story of Eudocia "Lola" Tomas Polido, a woman his family enslaved, first in the Philippines and then in the United States. Though some found the piece resonant, praising it as a courageous personal exploration, critics were quick to point out that Tizon seemed to be absolving himself of culpability, and also taking away Eudocia's agency: This was her story told through him.
Readers may not have realized how many stories there are like Eudocia's. According to the International Labor Organization, there are approximately 21 million people working under forced labor worldwide. Domestic work makes up a large percentage of that, and is the largest industry of labor trafficking reports to the National Human Trafficking Hotline. Domestic workers who were trafficked report isolation, manipulation, excessive overtime, and emotional and physical abuse.
Take, for example, Lydia Catina-Amaya and Judith Dulaz. Lydia and Judith are both from the Philippines—which represented the majority of domestic labor trafficking survivors in NDWA's Beyond Survival Report. They spoke to Broadly about how they came to the US from the Philippines, their experiences with abusive domestic work, and how they escaped their abusive situations to become organizers.
Lydia, 46, community organizer at Damayan Migrant Workers Association, NYC
Born: South Luzon, Philippines
Lydia was recruited as a missionary for a church in the Philippines and was brought to the United States under the auspices of helping the church raise money. She spent some years as a personal assistant for church members and then was given a position as a domestic worker for the director of the church.
On her work life: They make me believe that "You are a missionary, you have to follow what I have to tell you." So I just don't know what to say, how to say no. I don't know my rights. As soon as I came, they took my passport.
That was 24-hour job. I don't have days off. I was always hungry. They didn't give me an allowance, nothing!.... They didn't give me a salary. I remember they gave me a coat and watches—Gucci—but they didn't really treat me as a human being. One time I got sick, and I was told that I had a spiritual problem because I couldn't do the same work I was doing before... It was very controlling. I couldn't even talk to my family; I was not allowed to have a friend.
On Tizon's story: It really makes me really mad! It's very sad because... there was domestic violence, they didn't pay her, they didn't give her opportunities to enjoy her life. She was really isolated. The grandfather treated her like not a human being, just like a toy that could be given as a gift…. It was emotional and psychological abuse, monitoring her movements... This is a really extreme trafficking situation. I'm not only sad, but it's making me angry! It happened to me for three years, but this situation, it was 56 years.
Judith, 50, member of Damayan Worker Cooperative, NYC
Born: Dasmariñas, Cavite, Philippines
In 2005, Judith left her husband and children in the Philippines to come to the United States, hoping to make money to care for her children. She worked for a diplomat who promised her $1800 a month and a path to citizenship. But, as she told Broadly, this turned out to be an empty promise. The diplomat cut her wages to $500 a month, and her working conditions were miserable.
On her working conditions: Then no holidays off. I count myself as 24/7, because I always stay inside the house every time they need me. And not enough food. There was a time they went somewhere for vacation—it would be three weeks they're going somewhere—and my boss told me not to touch the food inside the closet because that food is expensive, so I only touched the food in the fridge.... She gave me $20 for food for three weeks.
On isolation: The husband and wife, both of them were telling me that if I tell a friend, that if I tell the story about my situation, they're going to send me back home…. So of course I'm scared. I don't want to tell anyone else about my story. They're holding my passport. My sister told me, "You're easy to get deported because your passport is in the hand of the boss."
This type of isolation and the threat of deportation are common for trafficked domestic workers. In fact, the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA) Beyond Survival Report found that 78 percent of domestic workers at NDWA affiliate organizations were threatened with deportation if they reported their abusive living situations.
Lydia and Judith, like many trafficked workers, were discouraged from finding friendships or building community. Despite this, both were able to escape and become community organizers, advocating for women trapped in exploitative situations like those they had fled.
When Lydia realized her employers wouldn't help her with her citizenship, she ran away, staying with friends in Chicago, where she met her husband. He later helped connect her with Damayan, a grassroots migrant workers association in New York led by and for Filipina workers.
On connecting with Damayan: My husband...found out there's Filipino organizing.... He was telling me, "You can connect to your community," but I didn't believe him. It was really hard to trust people again... It took me really a while to be empowered... It was almost a year of arguing with my husband saying, "I don't believe you!" I was traumatized, paranoid. You just need the right group and the right community. We want our survivors to know that they are safe. We can embrace them and support them.
On her work as an organizer: I'm doing now community organizing. I'm focusing on base building, know your rights, and advocating for the workers for their rights. Through our leaders and through the members of Damayan (also through their friends) we organize low-wage workers like domestic workers… Our mission is to educate, mobilize, and organize our community. We encourage our members to share their knowledge to empower other workers.
It was thanks in large part to this type of community building that Judith was able to escape her situation and eventually connect with Damayan. Despite the isolation imposed by her employers, she was able to make connections.
On the friendships that helped her escape: I made two good friends just across the street... They were always checking on me. I told her about my situation—not that much, but she was getting me food. I saw her in the grocery store the first time, and so she invited me to come out to her job and walk around with her dog. And so I walk with her, I make friends with her, Sometimes she'd bring food, and she'd leave the food with doorman for me.
This person, this lady, helped me to run away. She comforted me; she said, "Just go away, just go! You won't be deported, you won't go to jail." She said, "You don't have to be scared, you just go."
On working towards autonomy : We build a new cooperative, the Damayan Workers Cooperative. We do trainings: safety trainings for the job site... trainings on how to run the business. It's a business that's owned by the workers. It's really helped me because... I don't have to work with the boss. I will be the boss, and I will be the worker…. It feels so good. We can have our own jobs. We are the owner. We are the boss. We don't have to be applying for a job because we have our own job. It's very good for me. We are the boss of the work.
For anyone trapped in a situation like the one she suffered through, Judith has passionate advice. "If you feel that you are in an abusive situation you should come out. You should speak to someone to help you out," she insisted. "You don't have to be scared of it; you have to speak out. We are working with these abusive people, so we have to come out and get help. We are always here to help them. I'm willing to help, even late nights… We don't want this to be happening again to our people."