The rise of ‘legal trafficking’



EVERYONE knows that the words “legal” and “trafficking” shouldn’t go together. These are two contradictory terms when taken literally. An oxymoron, as my former English teacher would call it. But I coined the term “legal trafficking” to best describe the phenomenon—which of late appears to be happening more frequently—of legal Filipino migrant workers being trafficked across international borders.

Gone are the days when trafficking meant abducting people on the street and transporting them to different countries for prostitution, slave labor and the like. Nowadays, trafficking also involves individuals, particularly migrant workers with legal and valid residency permits and working papers, who are ferried from their lawful workplace in one country and brought to—and legally enter—another country in order to be exploited.

Two months ago, the British broadsheet The Guardian published a story of Evelyn, a Filipino domestic worker in Qatar who was brought to the United Kingdom where she faced abuse worse than those commonly reported in the Middle East.

According to the report, “the 50-year-old was taken to a luxury flat in Kensington, where her boss, the sister of her ‘madam’ in Qatar, made her work 20 hours a day, allowing her only one piece of bread and no wages. She was trapped in a life of servitude, while meters away central London bustled with shoppers.”

“My employer flew with me, and when we reached Heathrow, the immigration officer just asked my employer what I’d be doing and let us through. The sister lived in a flat near Harrods. I had to work all the time, without a day off, and I slept on the floor by her bed. She’d shout at me, saying I was stupid or calling me a ‘dog’ in Arabic. I was rarely allowed outside the house, and only with her. I was given just a piece of bread and cup of tea for the whole day. I became emaciated…,” Elvira narrated.

Elvira was only able to escape when while her Qatari employer was taking a nap one day, she managed to find the keys to the door and ran away.

Another domestic worker, whom we shall call “Miranda,” also experienced legal trafficking firsthand. A native of South Cotabato, Miranda was hired to work as a domestic worker in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Everything seemed to work out well with her Saudi employer. When summer came, her employer’s family went to Dubai for a vacation and brought her along.

While in Dubai, she was allegedly ‘sold’ to her employer’s business partner. As Miranda understood it, she was offered as a sort of ‘present’ to seal her employer’s business deal with his Dubai partner. Eventually, her new Emirati employer ‘lent’ Miranda to his relatives and she was made to service two other households. Despite being overworked, she did not think of complaining as she continued to receive her salary.

However, the time came when one of her Emirati employer’s relatives tried to sexually molest her. After Philippine Overseas Labor Office (POLO) in Dubai rescued Miranda, they discovered that her original foreign recruitment agency was based in Riyadh. Having no valid work papers or residence permit in Dubai, Miranda’s case was elevated to the Assistance-to-Nationals Section (ANS) of the Philippine consulate in the Emirati state so that she could be eventually repatriated to the Philippines using diplomatic channels.

But it is not only in the Gulf countries that legal trafficking is becoming a common occurrence. It’s also happening within our neighborhood in Southeast Asia.

Last month, the South China Morning Post wrote about the appeal of our Philippine consulate for the Hong Kong government to crack down on local employers breaking the law by taking their domestic helpers to work in mainland China. This after Lorain Asuncion, a Filipino domestic helper, fell to her death from a building in Shenzhen in July after allegedly being sent by her Hong Kong employers to work at a relative’s house.

Hong Kong’s immigration authorities have referred Asuncion’s death to police as a “suspected human trafficking case.” But Hong Kong police arrested and only charged her Hong Kong employers for conspiracy to defraud.

“Rights groups said Asuncion’s case highlighted a ‘dangerous trend’—that has become prevalent in recent years —of employers breaching contracts by taking their helpers to work outside Hong Kong,” South China Morning Post wrote.

To address the scourge of legal trafficking, Labor Secretary Silvestre H. Bello 3rd has instructed all POLOs in some 35 posts around the world to keep an eye on the deployment of overseas Filipino workers in their respective jurisdictions. He has also instructed the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) to strictly enforce the rules and regulations requiring all Philippine recruitment agencies to closely monitor the condition of the workers they deploy.

But even our government’s best efforts will not eradicate this growing menace. Legal trafficking is hard to detect, let alone eradicate completely. It is a criminal phenomenon transcending international borders and transgressing the laws of several countries. There will surely be other Evelyns, Mirandas and Lorains unless countries get together to combat the illegal transport of migrant workers across borders.

The problem, however, is that legal trafficking is often treated by most nations as an immigration issue rather than a transnational concern. This is why the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) Committee on the Protection and Promotion of the Rights of Migrant Workers (ACMW) is currently putting together an instrument to tackle this new phenomenon.

In a recent Asean consultation workshop in Yogyagarta, Indonesia, which I attended as ACMW representative, we mapped out the different ways various state agencies in the region can prevent trafficking-in-persons, including legal trafficking. We all realize, however, that much more work remains to be done.


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