“Nanay” Fedelina Lugasan recounts a life of modern slavery
AFTER decades of enslavement, Fedelina Lugasan can finally breathe.
This past July, the 83-year-old Filipina domestic worker was rescued in Northridge, California after more than 30 years of domestic servitude with meager pay and no days off.
Born in Leyte, Philippines, Lugasan was 16 years old when she was recruited by the family of Benedicta Cox as the family’s live-in housekeeper in Manila. When she was 28 years old, Lugasan was brought to the U.S. to care for Cox’s sister who was sick but little did Lugasan know that she would end up working for the entire family.
For the next three decades, Lugasan served the Cox family, cooking, cleaning and caring for the children, all with no pay and days off. Although the home in Southern California had four bedrooms, Lugasan was forced to sleep on the floor with no mattress.
“I worked so hard even when my body was really hurting, and when it got really bad, I would cry [and] tears would be coming out nonstop. But I couldn’t complain, I couldn’t protest, and I felt so helpless,” Lugasan said of her decades of servitude under Cox at a summit on human trafficking on Friday, September 13, in Los Angeles hosted by the Pilipino Workers Center (PWC).
Speaking with the conviction of Lugasan — who affectionately goes by Nanay Fedelina — recounted a lifetime of lies and neglect begat onto her by her employers, who mocked Lugasan whenever she said she wanted to leave, asking her, “Where would you go?”
“[The Cox family] would threaten to call the police if I ever left and accuse me of stealing their things, which I never did. That scared me. I did not know anyone who could help me and of course, I didn’t want to go to jail for something that I didn’t do,” Lugasan recalled.
PWC has estimated that throughout her decades of work, Lugasan’s back wages come to about $1.6 million, using California’s minimum wage at the time Lugasan began employment with the Cox family in 1980.
But Lugasan’s lifelong experience in modern slavery isn’t unique at all. Just like Lugasan, tens of thousands of people all over the world are duped into promises of stable work and income in the United States only to be subjected to harsh working conditions, low pay and abuse.
Trends show that a growing number of traffickers are utilizing social media platforms in order to coerce victims into sex work or domestic servitude.
According to a report from the U.S. Health and Human Services, an estimated 50,000 people are trafficked into the U.S. annually, with a majority of them coming from Mexico and the Philippines. According to the Human Trafficking Hotline, a significant majority of victims are women and minors and an overwhelming majority of cases are reported in California.
Filipinos may be recruited by individuals who promise things like stable income, shelter and a pathway to citizenship, or they may be tapped by agencies in hospitality, the service industry or homecare who end up exploiting workers and threaten them into submission.
And it may be difficult to even identify a human trafficking situation on its face. PWC Executive Director Aquilina Versoza noted that, like Lugasan, oftentimes looks as normal as picking up kids from the school, running errands or working in the garden. But behind the pedestrian facade may be hiding something more sinister.
“It just really sheds a light on how our judicial system fails to protect victims and that the need for anti-human trafficking reform in our legislation is more urgent than ever,” Versoza said at the summit. “We celebrate Nanay Fedelina’s freedom today, but as I’ve said, it’s bittersweet. Nobody should ever have to endure what she has endured for so many years.”
Lugasan was finally rescued in 2018 when she collapsed in a hospital while watching over Cox who was sick at the time. In the days preceding the collapse, she had not been able to sleep or eat, and when hospital employees suspected mistreatment of the woman, they contacted law enforcement.
The FBI then searched Cox’s residence and found all evidence of abuse and exploitation. Both the FBI and the PWC helped Lugasan during her rescue and transition into normal life, helping her obtain health care, housing, food and legal services. (After a lengthy investigation, law enforcement put Cox on house arrest, sentenced her to five years probation and ordered her to pay $101,119.98 in restitution.)
Through the help of the PWC and the Filipino American community at large, Lugasan said she’s now able to live the life she’s always wanted to live, and she feels emboldened as ever to be active in the fight against human trafficking.
“Now that I am free from the abuse, I want to let all workers who might be in a similar situation to seek help and don’t let people mistreat or abuse you. Like PWC, there are so many of us who are looking to help. I felt so alone before, so I know how [isolating] it feels, but please know you are not alone,” Lugasan said.
If you or someone you know may be a victim of human trafficking, the National Human Trafficking Hotline can connect you with services and support and, most importantly, confidentiality. Call the hotline at 1-888-373-7888, text 233733 or visit www.humantraffickinghotline.org to chat with a representative. (Klarize Medenilla/AJPress)