There are an estimated 403,000 people living in conditions of modern slavery in the United States (GSI 2018). The US attracts migrants and refugees who are particularly at risk of vulnerability to human trafficking. Trafficking victims often responding to fraudulent offers of employment in the US migrate willingly and are subsequently subjected to conditions of involuntary servitude in industries such as forced labour and commercial sexual exploitation.
Lydia Catina-Amaya 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. She ran away from a forced domestic labour situation, staying with friends in Chicago, where she met her husband. He later helped connect her with Damayan Migrant Workers Association, a grassroots migrant workers’ association in New York led by and for Filipina workers. When she told her story at the age of 46 in 2017, she was working as a community organizer with Damayan. The narrative also responds to a 2017 article in the Atlantic, "My Family's Slave," that told the story of Eudocia "Lola" Tomas Polido, a woman enslaved in the Philippines and then in the United States.
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.
[The story of Eudocia "Lola" Tomas Polido] 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.
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.
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.
Narrative as told to Lena Solow (author) for Broadly (publisher)