In many communities, the severe exploitation of domestic workers goes unnoticed.
Kayla’s story is a composite profile based on in-depth interviews with three human trafficking survivors, input from service providers and trafficking experts, and research on human trafficking in the U.S. In communities across the United States, there are domestic workers like Kayla who experience the most extreme form of labor exploitation—labor trafficking.
Kayla sat on the emergency room bed, her ankle throbbing and her knee badly bruised. She tried to focus on nodding and not crying as her employer, Steve, stood nearby explaining her “accident” to the nurse.
Just an hour before, Kayla had been cleaning the living room in Steve’s home. She was moving quickly, as she often did to keep up with the demands of her job, and accidentally knocked over a crystal that sat on the fireplace mantle. It crashed to the marble hearth below.
Steve was there in an instant. Seeing the shattered vase, he screamed at Kayla and shoved her, causing her to stumble backward and trip over the coffee table. She fell hard to the floor and felt her ankle snap. Steve demanded she get up. When it became clear she could not, he cursed and stormed out of the room. Kayla lay still, afraid to move. Fifteen minutes later, Steve returned with his keys.
Human trafficking survivors who reported accessing health care services at least once while in their trafficking situation in one survey conducted by an NGO
At the ER, Steve did all the talking. When the nurse asked Kayla what happened, Steve cut in, “She doesn’t speak much English.” He told the nurse that Kayla was his family’s nanny and that she fell down the stairs. The nurse nodded and took Kayla’s blood pressure. Steve shot Kayla a familiar glare.
Kayla did speak English well enough to explain what had happened, but she didn’t dare. She hoped that the nurse might notice that something was wrong, that Steve was hovering too closely. She silently prayed that the nurse might ask for a private conversation.
Kayla would tell the nurse that she had come to the United States to work for Steve and his wife in order to pay off her son’s medical bills. She would explain that the couple had lied to her, forced her to work long hours with little pay, and had taken her passport. She would tell the nurse that both of them had violent tempers and sometimes beat her.
Kayla never got the opportunity. The nurse finished treating her ankle and Steve took her home.
Health care providers can be trained to recognize and respond to potential victims and survivors of human trafficking through programs such as the HEAL Protocol Toolkit.
Two years earlier, Kayla had been a single mother in Manila, raising her three-year-old son, Danilo, and working as a housekeeper for two families. Danilo had asthma. The medicine, doctor’s visits, and hospital trips were more than she could afford. One of the women she worked for knew a Filipino-American couple in California looking for a nanny.
The couple, Steve and Theresa, interviewed Kayla by phone. They had three young children and needed help with childcare and light housekeeping. They offered her $1,200 a month, plus room and board. They would pay for her plane ticket and arrange for a work visa.
It would be more money than Kayla had ever made, enough to support Danilo and help her parents. Kayla did not want to leave, but she believed it was best for her son. Her parents would care for him, and she would send back money to pay for his asthma treatments, clothes, and school. Someday, he would have a better life than his mother.
The day she left Manila, Kayla held her son and cried. He was too young to understand what was happening. He laughed and asked her to bring him a toy from California. Her parents told her not to worry.
Steve and Theresa met Kayla at the airport and drove her home. They lived in a big house like the ones she saw on American TV. Each of the children had their own room and bathroom.
Within a week, Kayla realized that the job was not what she thought it would be. What Steve and Theresa had described as “light housekeeping” was actually cooking every meal, doing the family laundry, cleaning every room in the house, and caring for the children full time with no days off. Her “room” was a windowless storage space in a corner of the basement.
of domestic worker trafficking survivors surveyed report having pay withheld or being paid well below minimum wage
report having experienced emotional or verbal abuse by their employer
report having their passports or other ID taken away from them by their employer
Steve and Theresa’s home became a prison to Kayla. She worked every waking hour and slept restlessly on her air mattress. Exhaustion was a constant dull ache throughout her body. Theresa barely talked to her except to criticize her cooking or cleaning. Steve would explode at the slightest mistake and sometimes strike her.
At the end of her first month, Steve and Theresa paid Kayla $200, far less than what they had offered her and not enough to pay Danilo’s medical bills. When she pointed out the error, they told her that her work was not satisfactory. Once she met their expectations, they said, they would pay her the full amount.
That day never arrived. Month after month, she was paid $200, barely enough to cover her necessities. This left Kayla just a few dollars to send home to Manila. The abuse went on for two years.
Kayla felt trapped. She was far from home. Her English was not that good. They had taken her passport and official papers, she had very little money, and she knew no one. She tried to console herself with the fact that she was sending some money home, even if it was not much. Maybe she was overreacting. Many people had hard lives in the Philippines, too.
11 Common Signs of Labor Trafficking
- Be abused due to their vulnerability
- Be deceived by their employer or others
- Be isolated with limited contact with others
- Have their movement restricted
- Experience physical and sexual violence
- Be intimidated or threatened by their employer or others
- Have their identity documents taken away
- Have their wages withheld
- Be forced to work to pay off debts to employers or others
- Be forced to work and live in abusive conditions
- Be forced to work excessive overtime
She worked through the exhaustion and the abuse. She tried not to anger Steve. When things got bad, she imagined that she was back in Manila playing with Danilo. In the rare moments when she was left alone, she didn’t dare try to escape, terrified of what would happen.
Kayla was only allowed supervised phone calls home. She tried to keep her voice steady, telling her family she loved them and that work was going great. Steve or Theresa always watched closely.
Outside of the home, Kayla was a part of the community, but she felt invisible. Steve and Theresa took her to church every Sunday so she could watch the children. When she occasionally had bruises on her body, no one there seemed to notice.
Several homes in the neighborhood had housekeepers, nannies, and au pairs—Kayla wondered if they secretly suffered as she did.
When Kayla took the children on a walk or worked in the yard, neighbors would say hello and walk past without stopping to talk. Did they know how she was treated? Did they care?
There was one exception. At the playground, one neighbor, a young mother named Maria, would regularly ask how Kayla’s day was going. She would share something funny that the children said or offer her a bottle of water. It was just small talk, but it made Kayla feel noticed. Kayla was afraid to talk to Maria too much, or even maintain eye contact too long, fearing that Steve or Theresa would suspect something.
It was after the trip to the emergency room that Kayla realized things would only get worse unless she found some help. Kayla thought of Maria. Maybe she could help Kayla find a way out.
The next day Kayla wrote a short note: “Please help. I can’t leave. They are hurting me. Kayla.” She slipped the note in Maria’s mailbox on her way home from the park and hurried away, hoping that no one saw her.
Maria understood. At the playground the next day, she pulled Kayla aside. She told her that she had contacted a lawyer friend who knew of a nonprofit organization that might be able to help. Maria would take her there the next morning at 8 o’clock. Back at the house, Kayla packed a bag and planned to slip out after the children went to school. She barely slept that night, worried that she would be stopped or that Maria would forget to come. As soon the children left the house, she looked out the window and saw Maria waiting in her car.
Kayla’s story is not unique. Domestic workers like Kayla make up the largest sector of all labor trafficking cases reported to the National Human Trafficking Hotline.
The vast majority of domestic workers are women, many of whom are women of color or immigrants, according to a 2013 study of in-home workers by the Economic Policy Institute. They often work in private homes as nannies, housekeepers, or home health aides for the elderly and people with disabilities.
Eighty-five percent of survivors in a survey of domestic worker trafficking survivors by the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA) reported wage theft or being paid far below minimum wage; 81% were forced to live in abusive conditions. Seventy-eight percent said employers had threatened them with deportation if they complained, and 77% reported having their movements restricted or monitored by their employers.
Since 2007, the National Human Trafficking Hotline* has received reports of more than 6,115 labor trafficking cases inside the United States.
In addition to domestic work, labor trafficking occurs in agriculture, construction, factory work, door-to-door sales, and other fields in communities throughout the U.S. The actual number is believed to be much higher. However it is widely recognized that labor trafficking is chronically underreported.
Trafficking victims often depend on their employers for food, housing, immigration status, and freedom of movement. Employers often renege on contracts, withhold pay, confiscate passports, subject workers to mental and physical abuse, restrict their movement, and threaten them with arrest or deportation.
Human trafficking in all forms occurs throughout the United States. The National Human Trafficking Hotline has received reports of human trafficking from every U.S. state since it started tracking state data in 2012, with some states reporting hundreds of cases each year.
*Data from the National Human Trafficking Hotline constitutes one of the largest data sets on human trafficking, but it is not intended to represent the full scale or scope of human trafficking within an area or population. Hotline statistics are generated from information communicated to the National Human Trafficking Hotline via calls, emails, or online tip reports. The National Hotline evaluates information for evidence of potential human trafficking but cannot verify the accuracy of the information reported. Statistics are accurate as of June 30, 2017 and are subject to change as new information emerges. Public awareness and advertising of the hotline, and an understanding of who human trafficking victims are, affects utilization of the hotline by a community or victims themselves and may lead to over or under reporting.