Human Trafficking of Domestic Workers in the United States

by Vins
Published: Updated:

Every year thousands of people, most of them women, emigrate from the Philippines to the United States. Unbeknownst to them, many will end up living in slave-like conditions. Rampant poverty, unemployment, and violence in the Philippines push many to seek a better life abroad. Many emigrate to the US with pre-arranged contracts as domestic workers. Unfortunately, as Abby Martin reported for “Empire Files,” their employers often ignore these contracts and immediately subject these migrant workers to heinous conditions.

Bosses are known to reduce migrants’ salaries below minimum wage, force them to work twenty-four hours every day, and restrict them to poor living conditions. Employers attempt to keep their abused migrant workers in line with threats, withholding payments, confiscating their passports, and inflicting physical and sexual violence. Those who escape are threatened with deportation by their former employers.

For her “Empire Files” reports, Martin interviewed former migrant workers turned slaves. One survivor, Lydia Catina, was invited to become a missionary for a church in the United States and was promised a five-year visa, but she ended up employed as a domestic worker for some of the church leaders instead. Catina worked for three years without receiving any days off, any wages, a green card, or any way of contacting her friends and family. She later managed to escape her employers, who had threatened to have her deported if they ever found her.

Migration to the Philippines is driven partly the legacy of the the country’s Labor Export Policy which dates back to the 1970s. Under the leadership of military dictator Ferdinand Marcos, that policy systematically encouraged the export of contract labor in an attempt to counter the nation’s escalating rate of unemployment its balance of payments crisis.

Martin also interviewed interviewed Linda Oalican, a former domestic worker who is now the director of Damayan–a group that empowers migrant workers. Oalican told “Empire Files” that many women have reported working years without pay, being forced to sleep in tight, unfurnished places with multiple people, and be starved/physically abused. A majority of these employers are diplomats and people of high status. Diplomats have more protection than most and benefit from broad interpretations of “diplomatic immunity.” Diplomatic immunity bars workers from claiming legal rights in court, providing diplomats with what amounts to a free pass to mistreat them deliberately and without penalty. Other employers are politicians or those with enough wealth and fame to avoid accountability for mistreatment of workers.

Partly for these reasons, the corporate press has given little coverage of the plight of migrant workers. One notable exception, a report broadcast by NBC News in July, 2017, focused on the case of a woman who came from Kyrgyzstan to Texas through an arranged marriage. This report, titled “What Happens to Foreign Human Trafficking Victims in the US,” did not cover trafficking from the Philippines or diplomatic immunity, however.  In January 2018, Newsweek published an article on illegal massage parlors and sex trafficking, based on a report produced by an anti-slavery non-profit, Polaris.


Abby Martin, “Buying a Slave – The Hidden World of US/Philippines Trafficking”, Empire Files (Telesur English), May 16, 2017,

Abby Martin, “The Roots of the Philippines Trafficking Epidemic”, Empire Files (Telesur English), June 20, 2017,

Student Researchers: Ronydjah Tillery (Diablo Valley College) and Lerret Jackson (University of Vermont)

Faculty Evaluators: Mickey Huff (Diablo Valley College) and Robert Williams, Jr. (University of Vermont)