I have had an issue burning on my heart for a long time. Honestly, I have fought mentioning it, because I know that once I open this can of worm my life will be different. The issue is slavery. If you read this your life might be different too. If you want to remain ignorant to modern slavery and pretend it doesn’t exist, you will want to stop reading now. I know the first image that comes to most people’s minds, especially Americans, is the black slaves from Africa in chains. Modern slavery is much more diversified today.
Slavery is still alive and well today and I have intimate knowledge of it. I know it is widespread in Cambodia and culturally acceptable in many parts of Asia. Of course, no one would call it “slavery”. After all, we have been finding politically correct terminology for several decades now. Slavery is more commonly referred to as human trafficking, debt bondage or involuntary labor, but never slavery.
Well, on my last flight to Malaysia. Who do you think I was randomly assigned to sit beside: yep, a slave. Both Cambodia and Malaysia are in the top tier of slavery countries, Cambodia is a source country and Malaysia is a destination country in the human trafficking under-world. The US State Department publically says:
“Cambodia is a source, transit, and destination country for men, women, and children trafficked for the purpose of commercial sexual exploitation and forced labor. Women and girls are trafficked to Thailand and Malaysia for exploitative labor as domestic workers and forced prostitution. Some Cambodian men migrate willingly to Thailand and Malaysia for work and are subsequently subjected to conditions of forced labor in the fishing, construction, and agricultural industries.” (U.S. State Department Trafficking in Persons Report, June, 2009)
Let me introduce you to Bopha who was assigned seat 20B next to me. I could tell that she was a slave because they flow through the Phnom Penh airport every day and they all look exactly the same. They girls are scared and usually have big eyes as they look around in fear. They stay in a group and remain silent all huddled together. They all wear the same clothes, only different colors, and they have matching bags. The other easy sign to spot is the short hair. Cambodian girls have beautiful hair and most of them keep in long and beautiful, but these girls all have their hair recently cropped short hair and usually it is quite mess a or standing on end as they have had long hair their whole lives. Clearly the haircut were a cheap in-house job.
As we boarded the plane I noticed the “handler” who sat up in the front next to one of the girls. They were scattered in all the middle seats across the plane. Bopha sat next to me. She was crying. I started up a conversation in Khmer with her. She was surprised that I spoke Khmer, but glad to talk. I asked her why she decided to travel to Malaysia to work as a maid. She responded that she didn’t want to go. She continued crying.
There was a nicely dressed Cambodian lady on the other side who became intrigued in the conversation and began consoling Bopha. Over the next hour and a half flight, Bopha explained her story:
Bopha knew many girls that went as maids from her rural village in Kompong Cham province. She recalls ten girls from her immediate village who were much younger (14-17 years old) who all went to Malaysia on the promise of making a lot of money. They were promised they could earn about $2,000 for two years of work as a domestic maid. She said, all ten of the girls came back within 18 months with no money and on the brink of starvation. Their slender bodies had been reduced to emasculated skeletons. Most took more than a year to recover from their health problems.
The obvious question I asked was, “So, why did you want to go?” She said she didn’t really want to go, but there was a recruiter who came to the village and promised them that what happened to those girls was rare and they were obviously from a “bad” company; not like theirs! So she decided to go and check out the company in Phnom Penh. When she arrived she went through the training for 2 days. After two days she knew that it was not for her, so she told them she would like to go home. The company manager told her she could not go home until after she paid off her debt.
“What debt?” she questioned.
The manager told her that she owed the company $250 for what they paid the recruiter and two days worth of food. She cried. $250 is close to the average annual income of most Cambodians. She called home and told her family they would not let her leave. She begged her family to find money from the relatives to pay her debt.
She had no choice but to stay and continue until her family could pay off the debt. After two months she got exciting news from her family. They had come up with the $250 and would send it to Phnom Penh. She approached the manager and told him that she had the $250 to pay off the debt.
“Oh no, now it is $750 you owe!” screamed the manager. He continued, “You eat too much food and we had to prepare all the paperwork for you to go work in Malaysia.”
Bopha could only cry.
Bopha was not a young girl like most of the girls the companies prey on; she is 31. They prefer the girls between 14-17 because they are innocent, can work long hours, and don’t know anything about their legal rights so they won’t cause the companies any trouble. When the company gets their passports though, their ages are changed to 25 and above for ease of travel; although anyone can tell the difference between a 14 year old and a 25 year old.
Bopha told me she had six children, but only four were living. The other two died of malnutrition. Her husband is trying to go to Korea to work in a factory. Similar situations there. Bopha left her kids with relatives and now was locked in for at least two years. As she was leaving they told her the company would take all the money earned for the first seven months. They also went through her belongings and confiscated all her money ($3.00) and an old cell phone and an address book. They forbid them from calling or even knowing where they are living in Malaysia.
I felt sorry for Bopha. I had a choice to make. Was it possible for me to help her? Or should I just keep her story buried deep in my soul and hope I forget about Bopha. I made a decision. I reached up to my bag and got my cell phone and a piece of paper. Her handler was sitting pretty close to me, so I needed to be quick and discrete. I told her that if anyone physically hurts her or she was starving to just run away and ask a taxi to take her to the Cambodian embassy (not that they would help her, but at least she could get around someone who speaks her language.) Then I gave her my phone number and phone number of a friend in Malaysia. She is illiterate, so I just taught her quickly how to use a cell phone and wrote the numbers down for her very clearly. Then I told her to hide the piece of paper so no one will find it. I also taught her how she could “sneak” calls on someone’s cell phone. I explained how after she made a call she must remove the battery so that it would erase the memory of what number she called. The last thing I could do was pray for her.
I felt horrible. I felt angry. This was not 1860, this was going on right around me and right around everyone else in the plane and everyone knew it. The airlines know it. The governments know it. The police know it. The employers know it. They are the only ones making money and these poor girls are going to lose two years of their life and likely receive no compensation at all. Many come back battered and abused, some never come back. Hence, they are slaves. Bopha is a slave. She is being forced against her will to work. She is being forced to leave her country. Upon arrival in Malaysia the handler will confiscate her passport and she will be stuck. There are a thousand miles of ocean between Malaysia and Cambodia so she is completely at the mercy of others who wish only to make money from her.
For weeks now I have been preparing a series of blogs. I am entitling them “slaves I know”. I want to do something about this, but I cannot do it alone. I know far too many salves to look the other way. Ask God how you may help girls like Bopha.