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Most of us are familiar with the evils of sex trafficking – we read about it, we have seen movies on it, we might have heard the story of girls as young as 15 being kidnapped and locked up in brothels by managers of bars and clubs to be used by their clients – three or four each night. My heart grieves whenever a teenage girl or young woman in her 20s is brought to our shelter for safety after having been rescued from a bar.
But the story of Mina is different. Mina is 53 years old. No, she is not a victim of sex trafficking but of human trafficking. A widow at an early age and struggling to raise four children by herself, she worked as a cook in several private homes in her hometown in one of the Visayan provinces. One day, a recruiter spoke to her about a job as cook in a restaurant in Manila, offering her P4,000 a month. Eagerly she took the opportunity. She was escorted into a plane and fetched by another person in the Manila airport. They took the bus and got off in front of an old but busy building. Until now, she does not know the name of the place as she was shoved immediately to the canteen, given instructions on what was expected of her, and told that she would be paid P2,500 a month. Upon protesting, she was screamed at and told to be quiet by the canteen manager who claimed that that was what the owner of the canteen gives to cooks. She was also told never to talk to anyone, to wake up at three in the morning and get to work immediately.
She and the two other cooks were not given time for noon rest. Besides cooking, she had to clean up – washing the big pots and pans herself before she could lay down to rest way past midnight. All she can remember is that most of the eaters were students, and there were hundreds of them for each meal. This was going on for over six months. Day by day, she could feel her strength giving way. And one day, she collapsed and fainted in sheer exhaustion. For the first time, she heard the voice of the owner talk to her in a cell phone saying in Pilipino – “it seems you cannot do the job anymore so we will terminate you.”
She had only P400 in her purse, having had to buy her own personal things and food from the meager salary she was receiving. In the depths of her grief and confusion as to what to and where to go now – she did not know a soul in Manila – a middle-aged woman named Bitang whispered to her to follow her as she had a way for her to get out of that den. She quickly gathered her few possessions in an old rice sack and followed Bitang from one corridor to another. When they reached the gate, Bitang told the guard – “Here is another one we have to recue from abuse again.” He let them out and they rushed to another building. She looked up and read the words “Department of Social Welfare and Development.” The social workers there and then interviewed her and promised to get a ticket for her in a few days to return to her hometown. In the meantime, she was referred to the Good Shepherd Sisters Shelter.
Nanay Mina, as the girls and young women in the shelter call her, has integrated well into the program. Like many of those who have experienced abuse, she pours out her story to anyone who will listen and she counsels the young ones to be careful and not be too gullible.
Mina is just one among the hundreds, maybe thousands of men and women – young, middle-aged or older – who get fooled into promises of greener pastures and end up as slaves. Sometimes their stories get featured on TV, radio or tabloids. Most often, they languish in fear for months or years, with just a glimmer of hope that rescue will come their way, somehow.