Living Room Dialogue with Sharon Ira L. Tiongco
(Presenter: Sharon Ira L. Tiongco, Economic Development Coordinator of the Philippine Agency for Community and Family)
What is "trafficking in persons?" Who are the women and children of the Philippines trafficked for sex and work? How are they ensnared? Who are the traffickers? What can be done to stop this trade? Can this activity rightly be called "slavery?"
These were questions that surfaced in Sharon Tiongco's presentation and the following discussion during this Living Room Dialogue.
Although trafficking of persons is against the law in many countries, 250,000 women and children from Southeast Asia were abused in this way in 2003, according to a U.S. report. Under Philippine law, three elements define trafficking:
Although usually this activity is thought of as trafficking women and girls for sex, other forms of exploitative labor can be involved. Victims of trafficking come from poor families, frequently in rural areas. There is a general lack of job opportunities. Young people, particularly girls, find it hard to continue schooling.
To help us understand how this works, Sharon gave us the example of Girlie, a 17-year-old girl from Davao, a city in the southern island of Mindanao. Girlie's mother was thought to be in Manila, and Girlie wanted to find her.
As she had no money for passage, to get to Manila, she signed up with a recruiter. Recruiters in general seem to be supported by large, shadowy, criminal organizations that are hard to track down. However, they can and do advertise openly in the Philippines in newspapers and elsewhere. Sometimes a recruiter can be a person in a village who is trusted by the people in the village, even a woman who was once recruited herself and returns with a display of luxury and comfort.
Girlie traveled for eight days by land and sea inside a jeepney that she was not allowed to leave. Forty other people were squeezed into a vehicle that was designed to hold no more than 20. A tarpaulin covered it, so that its contents could be passed off as cargo such as chickens. The passengers were given noodles and dried fish to eat.
In Manila, Girlie could not find her mother, but was now obliged to work off the 7,500 pesos owed the recruiter. Her first job was as a domestic worker in a household where she was expected to be familiar with appliances that she had never seen or heard of before. Because of her clumsiness with these, she was constantly berated by the people in the household. She also was not allowed to leave the house.
As she proved unsatisfactory in this job, she was sent to another household where she was expected to work as a babysitter. Girlie was not good at this either, so she was sent back to the recruiter's hostel – a single room shared by 25 men and women.
Next, Girlie was sent to work as a waitress in a bar where she was upset by the way men touched her, which made her feel cheap. She did not work out in this job either and was once again sent back to the hostel where she was reminded she had pay 7,500 pesos before she could leave.
Finally, one recruit escaped and went to the police. The hostel was raided and Girlie released. She was lucky to be assisted by the Vasayan Forum, an NGO that works primarily with victims of trafficking. However, most victims, even when "saved," have no place to go.
Sharon said it was difficult to obtain passage of the law against trafficking in the Philippines because legislators tended to think of this as ordinary economic activity rather than as a crime. They ask "what's wrong with it?" Workers who leave the Philippines to work are frequently seen as heroes because they send huge amounts of money back home. The victims frequently "agree" to their contracts, often not fully realizing what they (or the parents who are encouraging them to go with recruiters) are getting into.
NGOs trying to stop the trafficking mostly depend on educating people about the consequences of signing up with recruiters. It is difficult to figure out how the recruiters are organized, although trade amounts to billions of dollars. Although there are thick files with the names of victims, information on recruiters can be listed on a single sheet of paper. Prosecutors rely on the testimony of victims who agree to talk but otherwise they have no case, and victims are usually too frightened to talk. In one case, a safe house housing a witness had to move three times although they didn't know who the persons were who were threatening them.
In the dialogue following Sharon's presentation, there was an attempt to identify the social structures or systems within which trafficking of persons takes place. One participant identified the system as "patriarchy" and called for a "paradigm shift," which would be indicated by a change of language. For one thing, a person paying for sex should be called a perpetrator and treated as a rapist, she argued.
Another participant identified population growth as a factor and asked about family planning in the Philippines. Sharon said "machismo" is a problem, in that men expect the consolations of sex after a hard day of work. She also described an ad for rum using the slogan "Do you like a 15-year-old?" that revealed an underlying attitude toward the use of girls that age.
The economic system also needed to be examined. There are not enough jobs in the Philippines. What is the role of the globalized economy in this? The Philippines is rich in natural resources but even if these are exported, the people of the country do not usually benefit. And do we call the system of trafficking workers "slavery?" "Indentured servitude?"
One successful project sponsored by Sharon's NGO involved partnering with local businesses to train 20 workers. The workers were supported by the NGO while they received their training, but 15 of the 20 eventually were employed by the businesses.
There are things that we can do in this country to stop trafficking by pressuring our own government and international organizations like the UN to get serious about enforcing anti-trafficking laws. Authorities tend to look the other way, Sharon said.
At the end of the discussion, participants acknowledged that we do not have to look all the way to the Philippines to find examples of sexual exploitation. Here in New York, just under our noses, young women disappear into a net of sexual predation.
To conclude, Jinny Dorgan asked for an evaluation of the discussion – could we call it "dialogue?" And if so, in what way? We agreed that it was not dialogue in the sense that opposing views were represented – we were all basically on the same wave length. However, people listened well to one another and the discussion built on the contributions each participant made.
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