Human trafficking 'in our own backyard'

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Sarah Douziech – August 15, 2011

When Ana and Lily were recruited for work in Canada, they thought they were leaving behind life in the Philippines to make their dreams come true."I had a good life there, but I gave up everything to pursue success and a better life here" Lily, 35, says.

In addition to families and friends, Ana, 28, left behind a serious boyfriend while Lily gave up a secure job she'd held for 13 years in a luxury hotel in Manila, all for the promise of good-paying jobs in an Alberta resort that supposedly awaited.

This West Vancouver house is in the name of Mumtaz Ladha, 55, who has been charged with human trafficking. She is alleged to have hired a 21-year-old African woman and forced her to work 18 hours a day, seven days a week.
Photograph by: Steve Bosch, Postmedia News, Postmedia News

But when they arrived in Vancouver four years ago, their dream quickly turned into a nightmare.

Their passports were seized and they were forced to work gruelling hours as housekeepers and nannies in the homes of a middle-aged businesswoman and her extended family in Burnaby.

They say they were treated like slaves, enduring constant verbal abuse. They were summoned by numbers assigned to them - their captors refused to use their names - at all hours of the night to "wash undies" or clean bedsheets.

They didn't know it at the time, but they had become victims of human labour trafficking.

"Many people would be shocked to know that it happens here in our own backyard," B.C. RCMP human trafficking co-ordinator Cpl. Jassy Bindra said, adding that labour trafficking issues in particular "are coming to the forefront."

Three months after arriving in Vancouver, Ana, Lily and six other Filipinas were moved to a lakeside town in southwestern Alberta where they were kept among gift shop stock in a cramped basement.

"You could touch the ceiling," says Lily, describing the tiny room she lived in off and on for two years. They finally did work in a hotel, but for 16 to 18 hours a day and often for no pay.

Subject to extreme control, they were only allowed to eat one hamburger a day, were forbidden to talk to anyone else and were even given specific times they could flush the toilet eight of them shared.

They endured humiliation as other hotel employees would sing, "Here come the slaves," when they arrived for work, Ana says.

People in the town also knew what was going on, but many kept the secret.

"Some of them offered to escape us," Ana says. "But, we were so scared, because we don't know where to go after that."

Not only did their captor have their passports, she told them that if they tried to escape, she would have them deported on the spot or thrown in jail.

They were moved from B.C. to Alberta and back every six months over the course of about two years.

Human trafficking has been referred to as "modern-day slavery" and involves the domestic or international recruiting, transporting and harbouring of people for forced labour exploitation and is unlike human smuggling, where people pay someone to bring them into the country illegally.

Statistics about how many people are trafficked into the province annually and where they come from are virtually non-existent.

Bindra said it's difficult to quantify because the crime is secretive and victims face numerous challenges in coming forward. The United Nations has estimated 2.5 million people are trafficked annually, 32 per cent of whom were exploited for their labour.

In 2004, RCMP estimated 800 people were trafficked into Canada per year - 200 of whom were labour trafficking victims.

Bindra said there are currently more than 30 active human trafficking investigations in the country, but couldn't say what proportion were in B.C.

Victor Porter with B.C.'s Office to Combat Trafficking in Persons said while numbers around human trafficking in Canada are "very sketchy," the majority of calls they receive are reports of labour trafficking.

Porter said the office, which has co-ordinated B.C.'s response to the problem since 2007, has helped just under 75 human trafficking victims in the province in the last three years. Funding for the office as well as its top official was slashed earlier this month.

Ana and Lily came into Canada under the Provincial Nomination Program, where if a foreign national works at the same company for two years, their employer can nominate them for permanent residency.

Both women thought they could endure the slave-like conditions they faced in exchange for staying in Canada, but as time wore on, their fellow Filipinas were being fired and deported short of their two-year contracts.

Fearing they would face the same fate, they resolved to flee.

While they were back in Burnaby in early 2010, Ana and Lily made their move.

The two made it to a mall and phoned a Filipino couple one of their cousins had met at church who picked the women up and called the police.

"At first, I can't believe there's somebody helping us," Ana says. "You're still thinking, what's going to happen next."

Two days later, the RCMP connected them with Deborah's Gate in Vancouver, where they were protected under 24-hour surveillance and given resources and support to overcome their trauma.

It took some time, but now, a little over a year later, the two women's demeanour has completely changed, Krueger said. They smile, they don't jump when the phone rings and they both have above board jobs and share an apartment in downtown Vancouver.

"This is the real Canada," Lily says, laughing. Both are working toward becoming permanent residents.

While anti-trafficking efforts are still developing, it has been highlighted annually by the U.S. State Department that Canada lacks a national strategy to combat the emerging crime.

Yet, Canada continues to increase capacity in its programs that bring in temporary foreign workers to fill its labour market.

A 2010 RCMP Human Trafficking in Canada report noted the influx "has generated concern."

Some solutions could be tightening regulations for recruiting agencies, performing more investigations before and after placements, and creating better complaint processes for affected workers, experts said.

Original article on Ottawa Citizen website