There are an estimated 403,000 people living in conditions of modern slavery in the United States (GSI 2018). The US attracts migrants and refugees who are particularly at risk of vulnerability to human trafficking. Trafficking victims often responding to fraudulent offers of employment in the US migrate willingly and are subsequently subjected to conditions of involuntary servitude in industries such as forced labour and commercial sexual exploitation.
Fedelina moved to the U.S from the Philippines for domestic work in 1974. She was told she would be looking after just one person, but upon arrival found she was to work for the entire family across multiple households. She was forced to wake up at 4.30am each morning to cook, clean and care for the family’s children. Her movement was restricted, and she was forced to sleep on the floor of her employer’s house, despite there being three bedrooms. One day in 2018, when Fedelina’s employer was receiving dialysis, the Filippino nurse treating her called an ambulance after Fedelina became sick. Though Fedelina told the hospital that she was paid for her work and free to leave at any time, later the FBI showed up and assisted in her in leaving her exploitation.
My name is Fedelina Lugasan. I’m Fedelina Lugasan. I’m from Manila.
When she [Benedicta Cox / Benji] brought me to the U.S., she told me “don’t worry – they’re nice people, they’ll treat you like family”. That was a lie. I didn’t know anyone in the US. And when they brought me they told me I’d be taking care of just one person: Benjy’s sister. Just her. I had no idea I was going to be looking after the entire family.
Every morning I’d get up, take the bus from where I was living with Benjy to the other house so I could take care of the other family. I’d wake up at 4:30 in the morning to get to the bus stop by 6. The families lived far apart, and I didn’t have a car, so I had to take the bus to get between the houses. And when I got there, I’d take care of everything in the house: cook, clean, do the laundry, iron clothes, and look after the kids. That was my job.
When then the lady says can you cook me this, this this, I cook. She eats first before me. Sometimes I did not eat. I'm cleaning, I'm cooking, she talks to me bad words. I did not answer. I go out and clean outside. After, I go inside the house to cook dinner.
Sometimes I go out. And then the grandchildren call me. Come in, get inside. We will eat, and then I go inside and eat. If she did not ask me to come, no, I will not go there.
I never wanted to ask them for anything – not even on holidays like Christmas or Thanksgiving. I was always there, but I wouldn’t ask to eat with them, or to be included in anything they did. And usually, they wouldn’t include me. Usually, I would just stay in my corner while they ate or did whatever they were doing as a family.
She [Benedicta's sister] would give me money and invite me out with them. Whenever she’d invite me, I’d try to protest, and say that I had work to do and that I should stay behind. But she wouldn’t take no for an answer. She’d say – ‘Your chores can wait. If I tell you to come with us, you should come. I’m the one inviting you.’
I always went along with her, she never left me behind. We went to Julian [town in California], I got to try warm apple pie, I picked apples, oranges, cherries, grapes. That's why that lady told me, when we are going somewhere, you always go. Everybody will go out.
Benjy [Benedicta] accused me of killing her sister. Benjy said the cops were going to arrest me for killing her sister.
It was just the two of us. She had three rooms in her house, but I still slept on the floor. Even when I got sick, she wouldn’t give me medicine or go get me food. I would have to force myself to stand just so I could go get food and water. She’d say to me, ‘If you leave, I’ll have you arrested.’ And I’d tell her, ‘Go ahead! Ask the cops to dig through my things! Let’s see if they find anything.’
I couldn’t leave the house. When Benjy’s sister was alive, she’d take me with her wherever she went. She wouldn’t trap me in the house like Benjy did.
If somebody gave you money, buy your own food, because you have money. Don't eat my food, she told me, and I said, I will not eat your food!
One day, I hadn’t eaten anything. Benjy was on dialysis, and there was a Filipino nurse supervising the treatment. I was embarrassed, but I was so hungry. So I told him, ‘I’m embarrassed to ask you this, but I’m starving. Could I get something to eat?’ He was kind about it. He said, ‘Don’t worry about it, Nanay. I’ll go down to the kitchen and get you something to eat.’ But then, after I ate, I started to feel sick – and then I vomited.
The nurse who gave me the food alerted the hospital. The social worker was Filipino, and asked me all these questions: if Benjy’s family paid me a proper salary, if I was given regular meals, if I was free to go out, and how many days a week I worked.
I told them I was paid for my work, that I could go out as much as I wanted, and that I was given proper meals. I didn't want Benjy’s family to get in trouble. I would rather take the blame than they get in trouble.
The FBI would show up at my front door, and I’d go outside to meet with them. They were trying to convince me to leave because I wasn’t being paid. They would come early, around 6 AM. And they were always drinking coffee. There were four people who’d come – two Filipinas and two white ladies.
Myrla [lead organizer of the Pilipino Workers Center] will go to my house, and then she asked me, go with me now. I said, no. But this lady said you have a good house, you can leave. I said no, I don't like... (laughing) Myrla, she's "Go with me now, leave the lady….” I said no. (laughs) They really wanted me to go with them, but I couldn’t just leave. Who’d be left to take care of my employer?
The FBI showing up caused problems with Benjy’s family – they got mad at me. They asked me what I told the FBI, why they were there all the time. And I told them – I don’t know! I have no idea!
Benjy shouted at me. She said, ‘F**k you.’ I said it right back: ‘F**k you too.’
Benjy told me the FBI was going to enslave me. And then when I told the FBI what she’d said, they said – no. Benjy just doesn’t want you to leave, because then there will be no one to look after her.
The final straw was when the driver took Benjy’s side. And he confronted me, like – ‘Make up your mind! Are you going with the FBI, or staying with Benjy?’ That made me mad. The chauffeur didn’t get it, he was paid.
And Benjy’s nephew said to her – ‘what did Fedelina ever do wrong? If you don’t want her around anymore, give her some money so she can go home!’ And that made Benjy mad. She yelled right back – ’I’m your aunt. How could you take her side?’ And she said ‘She’s not part of our family.’
He said, ‘Fedelina and I are not related but you’re the one who’s wrong here. You’ve got no right to always be angry with her when she hasn’t done anything wrong. She did not do anything to you. Why you always mad at her?’
That's why I am happy. (laughs) I'm happy because I'm the one who take care since he born. 22 years old she love me. I said, "Okay. I will go."
I hadn’t packed anything. But I decided to go. So the FBI told me, ‘Let’s go – go get your clothes!’ And I asked them, ‘where am I going to live now?’ And they told me not to worry and that they had a place for me.
I did not say bye! No! I am happy! To go out in the house because somebody saved me my life. Now am free! I'm happy.
They’re all nice to me here [in the nursing home]. They call me Nanay! In the morning when I wake up, I say. Good morning. Good morning Nanay! (laughs) They all show me respect. I’m happy, look at my hands, my nails are nice … my palms are soft…
Narrative as told to KCRW(a National Public Radio member station broadcasting from the campus of Santa Monica College) All credit given.