Lawsuit puts a spotlight on forced servitude, anti-trafficking advocates call for further awareness on the issue
A FILIPINA immigrant, who for nearly three years was allegedly forced into involuntary servitude and suffered unfair wages and extreme verbal abuse, has led a lawsuit against her host family in a case that highlights modern slavery and human trafficking.
Edelynne Bergado, a single mother of two from the rural Pangasinan province in the Philippines, said she was brought to the United States in 2014 by Marlon and Nelle-Ann Velonza who promised her a green card and a well-paying job.
However, from April 2014 to January 2017, she was reportedly “kept against her will” by the Velonzas and worked 14-hour days, seven days a week in the Velonzas home in the Los Angeles northeastern neighborhood of Eagle Rock, according to the complaint filed on Dec. 19, 2017.
For nearly three years, the Velonzas allegedly forced Bergado to cook, clean, care for the Velonzas’ two children and perform other domestic duties. Additionally, the Velonzas also forced Bergado to work for Etta’s International Cosmetics, a business run by Nelle-Ann Velonza which specializes in skin and facial bleaching.
According to the complaint, Bergado was responsible for preparing the products sold by Etta’s; she was reportedly even instructed by Mrs. Velonza to purchase other brands of similar skin products and replace the label with an Etta’s label to appear that it was manufactured by her company.
Notably, Mrs. Velonza also used Bergado as a “guinea pig” to test the skincare products — most of which were created by mixing household cleaning products like detergent and hydrogen peroxide — they were selling. As a result, Bergado suffered from painful, irritated skin burns, the complaint said.
Throughout her captivity under the Velonzas, Bergado was verbally assaulted and harshly mistreated, according to the complaint. They often made her work seven days a week and was not allowed days off, even if she was sick.
They also forbade her from speaking to her daughters, even confiscating her cell phone in July 2014.
The strict rules in place — that further isolated Bargado — prohibited her from speaking to people outside of the home; and, she was often not allowed to leave the apartment by herself. Additionally, the Velonzas had a video monitoring system that made sure she didn’t leave the house when they were gone.
Although they had promised Bergado a well-paying job once they got to California, she was paid about $200 for her first three months; afterwards, they didn’t pay her at all.
After a particularly heated argument with Mrs. Velonza, which left Bergado “very frightened,” she sought help from a friend on Facebook, who reported Bergado’s story to the National Human Trafficking Hotline.
On Jan. 12, 2017, Bergado was rescued by the Los Angeles Police Department, who recommended various health and legal providers to help her with her transition after the three years she spent in forced servitude.
Still suffering from residual emotional and physical trauma, she is now suing the Velonzas — along with Mrs. Velonza’s brother Nelson Orqueza and sister Josephine Cadaoas who knew about Bergado’s captivity but didn’t help her — for monetary compensation for years of unpaid wages as well as the intense trauma she endured.
Like many individuals seeking work in in the U.S., once she knew her situation was definitely not what she was promised, she wanted a way out. But due to threats and coercion by the Velonzas, Bergado didn’t see a way out.
“I think that’s common with a lot of ppl who are in human trafficking situations that they recognize they’re being mistreated and they do want to leave but because of the fear and coercion and inundation that traffickers often use, they are often unable to do so, even if they desperately want to,” Christopher Lapinig, Skadden Fellow in the Impact Litigation Unit at Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Los Angeles, shared with the Asian Journal.
Advancing Justice – LA, along with law firm Jenner & Block LLP, filed the lawsuit on behalf of Bergado last December.
Per federal law, human trafficking includes “the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud, or coercion, for the purpose of subjecting that person to involuntary servitude, forced labor, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery,” according to the National Human Trafficking Hotline website.
While human trafficking is popularly discussed in the context of sex trafficking, it is a wide-ranging concept that includes a myriad of industries, noted Lapinig, who works closely with Filipinos who are survivors of trafficking.
“There are certain industries and certain types of work where [human trafficking] is really common, and it can happen in any industry or any type of job that is not sex-related. It’s a pretty expansive category,” he said.
Moreover, those who are trafficked into domestic servitude — many of whom come from overseas, like Bergado — aren’t fully aware of the laws in place that protect them from the types of abuse and negligence they may endure under their captors, Lapinig said.
“The nature of domestic work makes it easier for traffickers to keep the trafficking victim hidden away and isolated throughout society and isolated from information about what our person’s rights are and the status of the law,” he noted. “So, that isolation as the nature of being a domestic worker makes people working as domestic worker much more vulnerable to the types of coercion that traffickers often use to keep their victims in place.”
Protections against human trafficking
In recent years, U.S. federal law has doubled down on its approach to eradicate human trafficking of all kinds.
Passed in 2000, Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) was the first comprehensive federal law to tackle human trafficking in the U.S. The law includes prevention, protection and prosecution.
He also noted that there’s a special visa available for those who have survived from trafficking called the T-Visa that allows undocumented victims of trafficking to bring over any spouses and unmarried children from their homelands; if eligible, this visa could get them a green card and a guaranteed pathway to citizenship.
But survivors are encouraged to report their stories immediately and seek legal help. In some cases, trafficking victims only approach law enforcement or seek legal counsel years after; by then, some evidence may not be available to bring together a case.
“If we want to end human trafficking, I believe it is important for us to hold traffickers accountable, whether through criminal prosecutions or lawsuits that result in monetary damages,” Lapinig said. “But it’s hard to do that unless survivors of trafficking realize that they are survivors of trafficking and to seek legal help as soon as they escape.”
The Bergado case parallels a story in The Atlantic, “My Family’s Slave,” by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Alex Tizon. Tizon, who passed away in March 2017, wrote an emotional first-hand account of how his family had kept a slave, Eudocia Tomas Pulido, for more than 50 years.
Though Tizon and his siblings adored Pulido (whom they affectionately called “Lola”), he shared how his parents unremorsefully abused Pulido, didn’t pay her and forbade her from seeing her family back in the Philippines.
“I had enough interior dialogue going on. I was no better than my parents. I could have done more to free Lola. To make her life better. Why didn’t I?” Tizon wrote. “I could have turned in my parents, I suppose. It would have blown up my family in an instant.”
That story, which went viral, raised questions on the issue of modern slavery and domestic servitude, specifically.
According to the September 2017 report by the International Labor Organization (ILO), there are an estimated 40 million victims of modern slavery; of those 40 million, about 25 million are engaged in forced labor while around 15 million are coerced into arranged marriages.
While forced labor — which usually entails abuse of many forms, underpayment or lack of payment and overworking — is illegal in the United States, many victims who are immigrants are unaware of the laws that uphold their rights as workers.
Lapinig emphasized the importance of being aware of the labor laws in the country in which a worker is placed so as to recognize signs of human trafficking in their place of work.
“My hope is that more victims of human trafficking get the message of what trafficking is so they can self-identify themselves as survivors of human trafficking and seek out whatever legal or social services that will help them rebuild their lives,” Lapinig said.
If you or someone you know may be a victim of trafficking, visit the National Human Trafficking Hotline, www.humantraffickinghotline.org or call 1-888-373-7888 to learn more. (Klarize Medenilla/AJPress)