By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
High-profile stories like these are beginning to form their own genre, a Cinderella narrative that takes the hapless victim from the pits of despair to wealth beyond his or her imaginings. Not to mention it is a pretty twisted way to gain a visa. Twisted, and also the only way any of these women could have gotten one. The future of the enslaved Long Beach tae kwon do “students” remains to be seen. Their captors’ trial in the U.S. District Court at the Edward Roybal Courthouse downtown is scheduled for March, with Judge Gary A. Feess presiding.
Why does this stuff happen? Poverty is the root cause. It is the fuel that drives the engine of supply and demand. Supply: abundant cheap labor. Demand: first-world clamor for someone, anyone, to do disagreeable, menial tasks.
A tenth of the population of the Philippines live overseas, a diaspora second only to that of Mexico. The country is a major exporter of labor, the highest relative to population size of any Southeast Asian country. Last year, Filipino overseas foreign workers, or OFWs, sent back $14 billion in remittances. This money accounts for one-fifth of the country’s GDP. Remittances have become a pillar of the Philippine economy, and are expected to rise 10 percent next year. They bring the country more money than banana exports (of which the Philippines is the world’s third-largest producer) and tourist trips to the legendary white “sugar sand” beaches of Boracay or the thousand perfectly cone-shaped Chocolate Hills of Bohol, said to be either tears of a giant or the dung of a mythical water buffalo.
Pelayo, the court documents allege, would pay Duden $6,000 for each illegal alien, but would tell the aliens she had paid $12,000. Working 24 hours a day, seven days a week for $300 a month, Agnes and the other illegal aliens were earning roughly 42 cents an hour. In the Philippines, this is still good money — just slightly below the average income of 65 cents an hour.
Measurements of “average” income can be deceptive in a country with gross disparity between the extreme rich and extreme poor, where the middle class is crumbling. (The criteria defining middle class in a recent study include whether a family has a leak-proof roof over its head, and whether the family owns a refrigerator and a radio.) One of every three Filipinos fails to meet the official, arbitrary poverty line set by the World Bank — the infamous $1 purchasing power per person per day. But an even greater number, more than half the people in the country, describe themselves as “mahirap,” or poor.
In the Philippines, poverty is largely found in rural areas like the one where Pelayo allegedly recruited Agnes. “The underlying weakness of the Philippine economy lies in its inability to create productive employment opportunities for its fast-growing labor force,” concludes economist Arsenio Balisacan in the Philippine Daily Inquirer. There are simply too many people and not enough jobs.
And yet there is something else that comes into play. Something more intangible. The former U.S. colony’s fascination with the West is deep and enduring. The culture is a surreal mash-up parody of American life. Consider the examples in an e-mail that circulates among the Filipino expatriate community called “Filipino Signs of Wit”: A bakery called Bread Pitt. A flower shop called Petal Attraction. A beauty salon called “Curl up and Dye.” A transportation placard declaring “Adults: 1 peso. Child: 50 centavos. Cadavers: fare subject to negotiation.” There is so much wit in the Philippines, a Manila businessman reasons, “because we are a country where a good sense of humor is needed to survive.”
The No. 1 show on Philippine TV, Pangako Sa’yo, or My Promise to You, tells the story of a long-suffering maid, Amor, who catches the eye of a rich American man who brings her to the U.S. She returns to the Philippines triumphant, hungry for revenge on those who ridiculed her, having made a success of herself in the American business world. America is the dream destination.
It’s exponentially easier to get work — as a cook, or maid, or nanny — in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and other Middle Eastern countries, but also more dangerous. When fighting broke out between Israelis and Hezbollah in Southern Lebanon in 2006, the Philippine government evacuated its overseas foreign workers and countless Filipino women returned stunned and penniless to their native soil with tales of rape, beatings and myriad abuses at the hands of their employers. But for some of these women, there is a reward. The intensely popular Filipino game show Wowowee showers the women with cash, houses and cars in exchange for their sob stories. The women cry. The crowd cheers. The victims are heroes.
The immigration laws that allow OFWs into the U.S. and the trafficking laws meant to prevent human exploitation are opposite sides of the same coin. In 2000, President Clinton signed into law a comprehensive anti-trafficking program, the first of its kind, based on the finding that 700,000 men, women and children were being trafficked across international borders each year, including 50,000 women and children into the U.S.
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