Streams

NYC Is Major Human Trafficking Hub: Part 2

Tuesday, July 06, 2004

Moving people across international borders and then forcing them to work against their will. is a crime called Human Trafficking.

The New York City area, as an international gateway, is one of the nation's hotspots for this modern-day version of slavery.

Yesterday you heard about how law enforcement social workers and advocates are working together in new ways here in New York to combat Human Trafficking. The State Department says 18- to 20-thousand people are trafficked into the U-S each year. Today. we hear from one woman who got caught up in it

Ms. P (through interpreter) : My husband told me you want to be financially secure, you're going to get all this money, so you can earn that much faster in the US and everything you want will be able to come true if you go with these people.

SJ: She asked us to call her Ms. P, to protect her identity. In her case, it was her husband who sold her services to the family she'd end up working for.

Most victims of Human Trafficking are too afraid or embarrassed to speak publicly about what they've been through. Ms. P, though, says she's coming forward to encourage other victims to seek help. We were put in touch with her through anti-trafficking advocates.

Ms. P comes from a poor, rural area in Dharjeeling, India. She says she had never been to school -- never even used a telephone -- when at the age of 27, her husband struck a deal with a local couple in India. The couple's son and daughter-in-law here in New York were expecting a child and Ms. P says they promised to pay 4000 Rupees a month for her to work as the family's housekeeper and nanny. That was about 50 dollars a month, or almost *twice* the average income in India. To Ms. P, it sounded like a great opportunity.

Ms. P (through interpreter) : Over there I had a really good life. Things were fine, I was happy. And then this person came and showed us all these dreams and showed us these things that life would be so much more better in the US.

SJ: Everyone involved, she says, told her she wouldn't have any problem, that she'd be treated like one of their own, a member of the family. The expectant parents here in New York were educated professionals; the woman is a medical doctor at Elmhurst Hospital. But when Ms. P got here six months later, she quickly realized things weren't the way she'd been told.

Ms. P (through interpreter) : From the first day on, the work started. The day I landed, that same exact evening, I had to cook dinner for every single person in the family.

SJ: The doctor was a vegetarian, her husband was not and the baby's meals were specially prepared. During the two-and-a-half years Ms. P says she worked for the family, she had to wait for them to finish eating and then she was allowed to eat the leftovers -- but just the vegetables. She wasn't allowed to eat any of the meat.

Ms. P says she worked 18 hour days getting up at 5 in the morning to deal with the baby or if the baby wasn't up yet to clean the apartment. And she wasn't able to go to sleep until after everyone else went to bed.

Ms. P (through interpreter) : Even for sleeping, they didn't give me anyplace to sleep. There was no bed, there was no mattress. I had to actually sleep in their living room on the floor.

After 2 days, I thought that never in my life have I gone through something like this. I felt like, God, where have I ended up to? I actually started to cry because I was like this was horrific.

SJ: How victims end up in forced labor situations differs. Some pay to be smuggled into the country and get caught up with smugglers who take advantage of them. Others, like Ms. P, may be applying for what they think are legitimate jobs in the U-S and they don't realize what's happened to them until it's too late.

The common thread though is that once they're trapped, they experience the same abuse, which can include physical violence and psychological intimidation.

Suzanne Tomatore: There may be physical abuse, sexual abuse, threats, documents are often withheld, so someone has no identification.

Suzanne Tomatore is Director of the Immigrant, Women and Children Project at the City Bar Fund

Suzanne Tomatore: They're not free to come and go from their place of work, generally. They may not be allowed outside at all.

SJ: Ms. P

Ms. P (through interpreter): First, they would not let me go outside.

SJ: The family lived in a Manhattan apartment.

Ms. P (through interpreter): I was not allowed to go out on my own at all. And talk to anybody. And they would say, "well if you go out, you can't talk to anybody, b/c you don't know the language and also if you talk to anybody, the police will find out and they will come catch you and take you away.

SJ: She says the family took her passport and she was never allowed to stay in their apartment alone. If the family was traveling out of town, they would drop Ms. P off at one of their relatives, where she was expected to work.

For the first year she worked for the family, Ms. P says, her husband back in India was paid the equivalent of 50 dollars a month. Ms. P got nothing.

Then, after a year of working 18-hour days under those conditions...she learned her husband had not saved any of the money.

Ms. P (through interpreter): So it worked out that they would give him money and he would just completely blow it on whatever it was he blowed it on. My trust was completely gone b/c there was no money left.

So in that 1 year, he I guess got a lot of money. And for me I felt like he basically sold me to these people.

SJ: She says the family then offered to hold on to her earnings and pay her in one lump sum in India once her three-year stint was over, because she says they told her she wasn't allowed to keep any money in the U-S.

Ms. P worked for another year-and-a-half with the fear of questioning the couple or leaving the apartment drummed into her head. The breaking point came after a total of 2-and-a-half years when Ms. P got the courage to ask for a day off. It would have been her first

[Ambi from Secaucus]

SJ: By this time, the family had moved to a sprawling apartment complex in Secaucus. Their building had a nursery, to which Ms. P was allowed to take the couple's daughter. And it was there that she met a friend: a woman from Bangladesh who was working as a nanny in the building.

Ms. P (through interpreter): So when I went to the nursery there with this other woman, who we started talking there, because we were both Christian. And I was really happy that I could talk to somebody. And that's how I told this person everything that was going on with me.

And she would also bring food for me to eat sometimes.

SJ: It was Easter time and Ms. P says she asked for the day off to go to church. When the family refused to let her go, she knew she had to get out. The family was flying to India that day and with all their luggage there was no room in the car for Ms. P. They were forced to leave her alone while a relative took them to the airport. The plan was the relative would pick her up on the way back and take her to his house. Ms. P knew she had about 20 minutes before the relative returned and that's when she made her break...

Ms. P (through interpreter): I know that that's the only time I had, so I quickly, like, grab my stuff and closed the door and walked out.

So it was a huge apartment complex, so I went from one side of our apt complex where I used to live all the way to the other trying to find this friend, 'cause that's the only person I knew. I didn't know anybody else. So I was ringing somebody else's door. I was ringing this person's door. All hoping to meet this one person that I knew. And then luckily I bumped into her in the elevator.

Ms. P says her friend was taken by surprise by what was going on but the two quickly sprang into action. They hid Ms. P until nightfall and then her friend took her to a friend's house in Queens .

With the help of advocates , Ms. P is suing the family in civil court. The Justice Department is not pursing criminal charges. Advocates say the feds don't have the resources to pursue cases that affect just one person. They go after larger rings that involve multiple cases.

WNYC tried to reach the family for their side of the story. Their lawyer stopped returning our phone calls and a certified letter requesting an interview was returned unclaimed and unopened.

In court papers, the family has indicated that Ms. P never worked for them , but that she was a guest in their home.

Ms. P, though, is recognized by the federal government as a victim of trafficking. Her case met the government's strict requirements to get a special T-Visa. Under the T-Visa program , which was designed to help victims of trafficking , she can now work legally in the U-S and she has access to benefits like English language classes , which she is currently taking.

For help...or more information about Human Trafficking...Covenant House runs a toll free Hotline...at 1-888-3737-888.

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