/Selling Lies

Chapter 1.

A 33-year-old man turned down a busy street to find the building where his job interview was scheduled to take place. In Manila’s arterial pavement pumped motorcycles, pedicabs, tricycle taxis, and foot traffic. But in Joseph’s heart pumped pure excitement. He believed he was close to a new beginning for himself and a better life for his family.

Joseph had moved to Manila from the northern end of the Philippines a dozen years earlier to complete a master’s of business administration. But when the economy tumbled in 2008, the job market dried up and he could scarcely earn enough to make ends meet. And his parents, who had spent most of their earnings helping Joseph through school, were now depending on him to support the family.

But all that was before his cousin told him about a recruiting firm looking to staff up a hotel chain in the United States. “In America,” he thought, “the money will be good and plentiful.” Things could change; he just needed an opportunity.

Like Joseph, most labor trafficking victims interviewed for the study made first contact with traffickers through their social networks. Indeed, 61 percent of the victims had never met their traffickers before being introduced to them via friends or family members. In 30 percent of cases, the person who ensnared the victim was actually part of his or her social circle.

Recruiters typically act as a layer of security between traffickers in the United States and recruitment happening abroad. Often, recruiters work for employment agencies three or four degrees removed from the entrapment taking place.

These preliminary recruitment meetings almost always begin with a misrepresentation of the job, immigration benefits, living conditions, and pay being offered. Of the study’s 122 cases, 93 percent began with this type of fraud.

But many traffickers didn’t just rely on fraudulent promises to recruit; they also employed a bevy of high-pressure sales tactics to coerce victims into signing contracts and paying expensive recruitment fees. Approximately 54 percent of the cases showed that coercion was used to recruit victims, and 48 percent showed that fees were paid.

These fees are often cripplingly high — $6,150 on average. Victims often borrowed money, used their homes or those of family members as collateral, or sold family property outright to pay these fees.

What’s more, these debts and familial obligations give traffickers leverage to control victims once forced labor begins in earnest.

After contracts were signed, most victims interviewed had to go to the US embassy or consulate to obtain guest worker visas. The overwhelming majority interviewed — 71 percent — entered the United States legally; 29 percent came into the country without legal documents.

58.6% of the Visas granted were H-2A/H-2B

Embassy visits provide a chance for US officials to look for and identify signs of labor trafficking and stop it before it starts. But in the cases studied, these opportunities were often missed.

One reason is the majority of victims interviewed said their traffickers coached them for visa interviews. And embassy and consulate staffers are generally not trained to identify signs of labor trafficking.

At best, embassies and consulates might offer applicants a pamphlet to inform them of their rights in the United States. Unfortunately for most victims, the unconscious march toward exploitation and trafficking continues.