BY LYNN EDMONDS
At a church in Elmhurst with English, Chinese and Spanish writing on the walls, churchgoers, activists and residents gathered for the second annual summit on human trafficking, an all-day event that took place on Saturday.
About 50,000 people are trafficked into the United States every year, the U.S. State Department estimates, with the largest numbers in New York, California and Texas. Queens, home of JFK Airport-a major gateway- is a portal for trafficked people to enter the country. And many of them are then held captive in our borough.
In between 21 and 29 million people are modern-day slaves.
The summit was organized by the Episcopal Asiamerica Ministries and the National Alliance for Filipino Concerns, Asiaamerica Mission to End Modern Slavery, and hosted by the St. James Episcopal Church. Focused on raising awareness modern day slavery and strengthening survivor-led support networks and anti-trafficking activism, the summit featured a panel where survivors shared their stories in the morning, followed by a choice of breakout panels in the afternoon entitled “support and organizing,” “wage theft and trafficking” and “know your rights and legal clinic.” The event also featured speeches by survivors and advocates, a vigil and Taiko drumming.
Most people trafficked to the United States from abroad come from the Asia-Pacific region and are female. They are often told by recruiters that they will be nurses, teachers, hotel workers or domestic workers upon entering the United States. But once they enter the country, the terms of employment that they were promised quickly become null. Their compensation is slashed and their hours might be doubled. They may be forced to do a different job than indicated on their contract. Often, their legal documents are taken away, they are threatened with deportation, or they are told they need to pay off a debt. They may suffer from physical abuse.
The keynote speech was given by Eni Lestari, a survivor of human trafficking and the chair person of the International Migrants Alliance. She spoke more broadly about migrants, documented and undocumented, who search abroad for work because of poverty at home, and the role they play in the global economy.
For her, it was impossible not to talk about politics when talking about forced migration.
“Many people try not to be too political. But it’s a political question, not an economic issue,” she said.
She argued that labor trafficking was a built-in part of the global capitalist system, that whether they admitted it or not, rich countries were dependent on the cheap labor of migrants.
“We are the ones being used to subsidize their economies, or their greediness,” she said. “You have to look at it as profit over people, that’s all.”
Lestari also dove into President Barack Obama’s Trans Pacific Partnership, coming out firmly against it.
She said she was against the deal because it would put business interests in control, allowing corporations to sue governments for things like increasing wages.
Lestari did not just have strong words for rich governments like the United States. She was also critical of her home country, the Philippines, and other countries whose economies are heavily dependent on remittances from citizens abroad.
If we don’t send money for one day, she said, the banks will not be able to function. If we don’t send money for one month, the country’s economy will collapse.
She said migrants helped the government avoid accountability because while they subsidized multiple family members back home with their paychecks, the government was off the hook for providing for those individuals.
She spoke of a “national plan” that depended on sending citizens abroad, so much so that the Philippines’ education system was geared toward teaching students how to be workers abroad rather than furthering their intellectual development.
“Humans is the last thing they can export,” she charged, “when there’s nothing left to export.”
She said migrants and local workers should fight unfair labor conditions and wage theft together.
“We are not the problem,” she said, adding, “We come here by invitation, we don’t come by ourself.”
Reach Lynn Edmonds at (718) 357-7400 x127, email@example.com or @Ellinoamerikana