When we think of human trafficking, more often than not we think of people who have been bought, sold, and forced to perform sexual acts. But while sexual slavery is a horrifying form of exploitation that is all too prevalent around the world, forced labor may in fact be a more common form of human trafficking. And it could be happening right outside your window.
A modern-day slave is often hidden in plain sight. You may even have met one today — according to anti-trafficking organization the Polaris Project, some of the most common hubs of labor trafficking are domestic labor, farms, restaurants, and even health and beauty services.
Photographer Xyza Bacani spent several months documenting the daily reality of survivors of labor trafficking in New York City. In photos, she tells the story of Daisy Benin Santos, a woman who was trafficked from the Philippines in 2008 and spent two years in captivity before she escaped.
Benin Santos told Bacani she had been tricked. Promised a lucrative job in a hotel in Missouri, Benin Santos paid thousands of dollars to her trafficker to bring her into the country legally. Instead, the trafficker let Benin Santos' work visa expire (leaving her undocumented), and took her to Panama, FL, where Benin Santos was forced to work as a cleaner. Her trafficker took the little money Benin Santos made and put it towards exorbitant charges for rent and food, keeping Benin Santos firmly locked in debt bondage.
"The hardest part for [these women] was the feeling of hopelessness," Bacani told Refinery29 by email. She added that the stories hit close to home: "There were some scenes where it’s like a flashback of my life."
Bacani, a native of the Philippines, spent close to a decade working as a domestic servant in Hong Kong, although she wasn’t trafficked. As a free laborer, Bacani had the ability to leave her employers if she wanted, and to pursue her own dreams and education on the side. But as a laborer and a migrant, Bacani connects to these women's experiences. "I’ve been on both sides," she said. "That gives me an extra perspective [on] these women’s stories."
Andrea Panjwani works with survivors of trafficking every day. She's a managing attorney for My Sister’s Place, a New York-based organization that aids survivors. She told Refinery29 that immigrants are especially vulnerable to being trafficked. "They may not have the language [skills], or any sense...that they have a right to labor protections even though they’re not documented," Panjwani said.
"Labor trafficking is a very significant problem in the U.S.," she explained, estimating that there are tens of thousands of people trafficked in the New York City area alone. Panjwani said the problem has grown so large because: "Everyone benefits. We have cheaper products and services because people are trafficked." And the fact that the practice is so widespread makes it hard to identify and help victims.
"Human labor trafficking victims are hard to pinpoint because some of them don’t have physical proof that they are victims," Bacani says. "How should a victim look? We’ll never know."
As for Benin Santos, she's finally free from forced labor. After escaping her traffickers, she found work for a new family in New York City before finally returning home to the Philippines to live with her three daughters. "She loves her children so much," Bacani said of Benin Santos. "I'm really happy for her."