MANILA, Philippines – "Oy, maayo kay dia ka (Oy, it’s good you are here)," began one recruiter in the village of Tumaga in Zamboanga City when he offered a then 23-year-old Abbie* a job overseas.
Abbie gave her contact number to the recruiter, who later reached out to her to talk about a restaurant entertainer position in Malaysia.
Abbie was promised to be paid 500 Malaysian ringgits (around P6,200)* a month, an amount she was willing to risk living in a foreign land for.
Little did she know that she would later be forced to work in a prostitution den, with one to 5 men in one evening having sexual intercourse with her. At the bar, she was girl #60. (READ: Human trafficking: How has government fared?)
Abbie was trafficked through a vessel from the Zamboanga City wharf in Southern Philippines to the port of Sandakan in Malaysia with other Filipino women – all wanting to work abroad.
She was eventually able to escape by seeking the help of a relative, whose husband posed as a customer who asked for girl #60.
In its 2014 Trafficking In Persons (TIP) Report, the United States (US) State Department said "a significant number of the estimated 10 million Filipino men, women, and children who migrate abroad for skilled and unskilled work are subsequently subjected to sex trafficking and forced labor."
This desire for overseas employment is a point of vulnerability which human trafficking syndicates capitalize on.
"Ang hirap banggain 'yung pangarap na pag-alis nila aasenso 'yung pamilya (It's hard to go against their dream that leaving the Philippines means a better life for their family)," said migrant workers' rights advocate Susan "Toots" Ople.
Ople explained that human trafficking almost always starts with illegal recruitment – the promise of overseas employment.
The Philippines is a known labor-sending country, and migrant workers' remittances are a major boost to the economy.
The administration of President Benigno Aquino III, however, envisions "a government that creates jobs at home so that working abroad will be a choice rather than a necessity."
While acknowledging that remittances of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) increase the purchasing power of Filipino families, ethical recruitment advocate Loreto "Lito" Soriano believes work abroad is never a panacea.
He said state policy should not treat labor migration as a magic bullet to end cyclical poverty.
Soriano owns his own recruitment agency and advocates against "circular migration" or what the European Union calls "temporary labor migration at periodic intervals." (READ: Ex-OFW, now business owner, tells OFWs: Plan your return)
According to the 2014 Global Slavery Index (GSI), the Philippines ranks first among Asian countries in terms of government response to modern servitude, including human trafficking, forced labor, and slavery, with an above-average rating in the entire Asia Pacific region.
One of the concerns raised in Walk Free Foundation's country brief on the Philippines is the trafficking of Filipino women in the guise of legitimate marital unions or mail-order brides.
In a podcast interview with Rappler, Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency spokesperson Director Derrick Arnold Carreon explained that these syndicates sometimes court women online and offer them marriages "with the prospect na guminhawa nang konti ang buhay mo (of a better life)."
He added that usual targets of human trafficking syndicates are those who "are in a state of need." They "are offered an opportunity to either travel abroad" or are offered "employment abroad" but "with no clear details."
Ople added that syndicates usually use recruiters based in the community, often relatives, to gain the trust of a prospective victim. She added that solo parents are especially targeted.
The date of travel promised to the victims are often too soon, so the recruiters "don’t leave time for the family to decide."
No to illegal recruiters
The government warns: No matter how desperate, workers shouldn't accept job offers from unlicensed recruiters. (READ: Illegal recruiters are 'fast for all the wrong reasons.' – POEA)
The promises made by illegal recruiters of fast-tracked job placements abroad are deceptive for they can only secure travel and not much else – not even a job. (LISTEN: PODCAST: Ethical recruitment of OFWs)
Active job orders from destination countries of OFWs are coursed through the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA), which releases an overseas employment certificate (OEC) based on the legitimacy of the recruitment and the job (see the process below):
In Abbie's case, in addition to being convicted human traffickers, two of the accused were also convicted illegal recruiters under Section 6 of the Migrant Workers Act of 1995.
On top of the Philippine government's list of illegal recruiters is Isidro Rodriguez, who duped many Filipinos with ghost job offers in the United States.
The POEA has an online database of recruiters with their corresponding statuses, whether they are in good standing, delisted, cancelled, forever banned, inactive, revoked, suspended, or denied renewal.
A free mobile app was developed by the POEA in March 2014 which shows the status of a recruitment agency, active job orders, information about illegal recruitment, and how to identify an illegal recruiter.
Civil society organizations, however, have lamented that the database is belatedly updated and therefore sometimes contains inaccurate information.
While human trafficking within the country also persists, the Philippines has been a source country in cross-border human trafficking operations.
Overseas employment has been the bait by which syndicates prey on many unsuspecting Filipinos, but the dangers that await illegal employment-related migration are overwhelming and at most times irreparable.
The POEA has warned that illegally-recruited migrant workers often end up stranded in foreign lands, forced to work against their will in low-paying jobs, at times in establishments in remote areas that are used as fronts by prostitution rings.
Some illegal recruiters and human traffickers now work with drug traffickers, using unsuspecting recruits as drug couriers.
Unlike Abbie, not all victims of human trafficking are able to escape trafficking operations, much less see their perpetrators brought to justice. – Rappler.com
*The story of Abbie (not her real name) is based on a court document.
**1 Malaysian Ringgit = P12.44