From Victim to Survivor

From Victim to Survivor
Francia Nemia Kikuchi sings on a beach in Lupon.

Eva Gantuangco traveled from her home in the southern Philippines all the way to Manila, the country’s teeming capital city, to audition for a job as a singer and dancer in Japan. Yet she didn’t have to perform. “I just had to show up. I didn’t have to sing or dance, just look pretty,” said Ms. Gantuangco, who was the single mother of a small son.

Without help from the child’s father, her sales job in a department store wasn’t enough. So in 2001 she left her son with her mother, received minimal training as a dancer in Manila, then flew to Nagoya, Japan, where she worked in a nightclub.

In many ways, Ms. Gantuangco did well. She saved money. She even gained weight. “It was the first time I’d eaten delicious food, so I got fat,” she said. After six months she came back to the Philippines and went on a diet.

A year later, she returned to Japan and continued working. Not only did she send money home for her son, but at one time or another over several years she helped out each of her 11 brothers and sisters, along with some nieces and nephews. She was the only one in the extended family working abroad, and she’s glad she could help.

“We are poor, and I needed to work for my child and my family. If I had stayed in the Philippines, I didn’t have any options,” she said, reciting a frequent refrain in a country where some 10 million people—more than one-tenth of the population—have gone abroad. They call them OFWs, Overseas Filipino Workers. Although India, China and Mexico receive more in remittances every year than the Philippines, the roughly $20 billion sent home by OFWs represents a larger share of the country’s annual economy than anywhere else.

To bring home her small piece of that hard currency, Ms. Gantuangco returned yearly to Japan. But Japan was under increasing pressure from activist groups to crack down on exploitative labor trafficking, especially of women, particularly Korean women. A series of 2005 laws made it more difficult for Ms. Gantuangco to return legally, so her Japanese boss provided her with fake identity papers and arranged a sham marriage to a Japanese man.

Unlike many foreign women working as “entertainers” in Japan, Ms. Gantuangco says she wasn’t abused sexually. Still, she only got paid if she interacted with male customers in the club, and she had a quota of eight “dates” per month, when she would leave the club with customers who paid the club owner for her company. She said many customers expected sex, and her job was to flirt enough to keep them happy without making them so angry they’d complain to the manager. If an entertainer didn’t meet her quota, she was kept locked in the club with a growing debt to the club owner.

Ms. Gantuangco gamed the system well enough to build a new house for her parents back in Mindanao. She got her younger sister a job as a cook in the club. Yet she and the other women in the club couldn’t leave when they wanted, and women who protested their treatment were at times beaten.

“We could only leave on a date with a customer. We had no freedom. We were like sardines in a can,” she said. The police raided the club in 2010, and Ms. Gantuangco and her sister ended up in police custody. At that point, the Batis Center for Women, an organization supported by United Methodist Women Mission Giving, stepped in and took them to a shelter. After several months, Ms. Gantuangco testified about the club’s operations, and her boss was sent to jail for human trafficking.

Because of the far-reaching power of traditional organized crime syndicates in Japan, most trafficking victims aren’t willing to testify. Concerned for the safety of Ms. Gantuangco and her sister, Batis Center staff, in coordination with the International Organization for Migration (IOM), kept details of their repatriation to the Philippines a closely guarded secret.

When they flew to Manila, however, three men posing as government detectives tried to take them into custody. The Batis and IOM staff resisted, and got Ms. Gantuangco and her sister safely into a waiting car that spent hours driving around until they were sure they’d not been followed. After several days in a safe house, they flew to the southern Philippines, where the local SWAT team was on standby at the airport in case someone threatened the women.

Today Ms. Gantuangco is happy to be home. She has never told her family about what really happened in Japan; she says she doesn’t want them to worry about her. She used her savings to buy a coconut farm, which provides a steady income. She also built a house for her son, who is now 14. She’s renting it out until he’s ready to get married and move in. “I don’t want him to experience the same situation of poverty
that I went through, and feel he has to leave in order to survive,” she said.

Nothing left after ‘commissions’

Liezl Villeta is another Filipina who went to Japan to earn income. A Filipina recruiter in her neighborhood arranged a marriage to a 69-year-old Japanese man, and in 2008 she went there with a visa as his spouse.

“I thought I was going to be his wife, but instead he and the recruiter put me to work in a nightclub,” she said. “They gave me a dress and makeup and told me to be nice to the customers. But I kept refusing, and they hit me.”

Ms. Villeta was forced to work cleaning rooms in a hotel during the day and spend her nights in the club entertaining customers. “And my husband wanted to have sex all the time. If I said no, he would hit and kick me. I couldn’t get any food to eat unless I first had sex with him,” she said.

The money she had been promised didn’t materialize. She was charged rent, and everything she earned had “commissions” taken out of it for the recruiter and several of the recruiter’s relatives in Manila who had helped fill out papers. After all the commissions, there was usually nothing left.

Ms. Villeta became chronically ill, and finally ran away, only to collapse on the street. A Catholic priest found her and took her to some nuns who called a women’s organization that gave her shelter. The group also helped her recover her passport from the recruiter and file for a divorce from the husband. And they worked with the Batis Center to arrange her transportation back to the Philippines, where she was hospitalized.

Now at home near Manila, Ms. Villeta has continued to suffer health problems related to her treatment in Japan. The Batis Center covered the costs for her care until recently, when the group’s meager budget ran out. Ms. Villeta has been unable to find a job, in part because of her time in Japan.

“People discriminate against me, saying I’m not a clean girl, because I went to Japan and worked in a club. But I know in my heart that I’m good,” she said. “Working in that club wasn’t my decision; it was the decision of others. I’m not that kind of person. Many women go to Japan and are promised they’ll work as a waitress or a sales lady in a department store, but now I know it’s always in a club. You keep drinking and drinking, because the more drunk you are the more numb you get and the more money you can make.”

With help from the Batis Center, Ms. Villeta has filed a criminal complaint against the recruiter. In the Philippines today, that’s a courageous act.

“I’m scared, because the recruiters’ relatives are around,” she said. “When I see them I hide and run away. I keep on praying and telling myself that I am strong and can handle this.”

Breaking the silence

The massive injection of remittances highlights other tensions in Philippine society. The Catholic Church, for example, retains inordinate power over reproductive politics. “More and more women, unaware of family planning options, are going abroad because their families can’t support the number of children they have,” said Rose Otero, a social worker with the Batis Center. “I sometimes feel that humans have become just a commodity, like bananas, something for our country to export.”

Many claim the government has relied too heavily on macro development schemes, such as huge mining operations, to drive the economy, neglecting sustainable local development that would produce more jobs and give people a reason to stay home. At the same time, the outflow of OFWs represents a safety valve for an excess workforce that might otherwise make uncomfortable demands on the government.

“We’ve long criticized the mendicant attitude of our ambassadors and consuls in relation to OFWs,” said Maya Vans Cortina, a Batis Center researcher.

“In Saudi Arabia, for example, when migrant workers go on strike or raise issues about wages or working conditions, our government tends to placate the workers to get them to stop the complaints. It’s very important for our government not to lose that labor market. As a result, it’s a race to the bottom.”

Although no one disputes the benefits of remittances in paying for children’s educations, setting up small businesses, or just plain keeping people alive, families can get hooked on remittances just as well as governments.

“When they have a worker abroad, the family can become dependent on the remittances and devalue their local contribution, with a tendency for increased consumer spending on luxuries that yield no savings,” Ms. Cortina said.

As Batis Center staff help once-trafficked women reintegrating into daily life, they pay close attention to the women’s families, Ms. Otero says.

“These women go abroad because of poverty at home, and their family has expectations that a relative working abroad will be making money for them. But a trafficked woman returns home with empty pockets,” Ms. Otero said. “We have to work with the families to make them aware of the situation the family member went through abroad, so they can lower their expectations and begin to explore what resources
they already have.”

Women will often not be completely honest with their family about their bad experiences abroad. Ms. Cortina says that just encourages the family to pressure the woman to migrate again because they don’t know what really happened.

“Between the migrant worker and her family there’s a culture of silence we’d like to break,” Ms. Cortina said. “The migrant worker doesn’t want to burden those left behind, so they keep their mistreatment a secret. They send pictures of themselves in the malls, beside good cars and nice buildings, wearing good clothes, so the children think they’re just making good money. 

"The family left behind also encounters problems. They don’t want to burden their migrant worker abroad, so they’re also silent about the teenager who may have become pregnant or the child who’s developing an addiction to drugs. We have to break that silence and see migration as it really is, with both positive and negative aspects.”

Several women who have moved from being victims of trafficking to being survivors with the help of the Batis Center have formed a sister organization called Batis Aware. These women provide peer counseling and support for women who some are tempted to blame for their own abuse.

“Many women who’ve been trafficked have not wanted to go back to their families because they don’t have money to bring back with them,” said Batis Aware member Erlinda Francisco.

“We encourage them, tell them it’s not their fault. We encourage them to be brave enough to tell their families what happened, but they often choose to just keep quiet because they are ashamed.

“Some families don’t appreciate that their daughters went abroad so they could have a good life. They close their ears and eyes. They just want to have the money of their children. We are advocates on this issue because we know that many women who experience trafficking have come back in coffins,” she said.

The volunteers with Batis Aware also try to educate women and families before the migrant worker leaves.

“Younger women want to go. They are eager to go to other places and support their families, so we tell them what they can expect,” said Batis Aware member Carmela Anteza. “They’re still going to go, and that’s their choice. But at least we can help them be aware of what has happened to others.

They need to know their rights as OFWs and where they can go for help should they have problems. They need to be very careful about people they’re talking to because there are lots of people who only want them to be slaves.”

A new start

The Batis Center and Batis Aware also work together to help trafficking survivors find a way to survive economically.

Theresa Malalo returned from Berlin after months of waiting in vain for thousands of Euros in unpaid back wages from an Israeli diplomat. The Batis Center got her training in small business management and accompanied her as she analyzed what kind of business would be successful in her neighborhood. They settled on a small food shop, and the Batis Center helped her buy the equipment.

Besides hamburgers and ice cream cones, she offers siomai, a kind of Chinese dumpling that Filipinos love. Ms. Malalo says she enjoys her new business, but most of all she enjoys being at home with her three daughters, two who are studying in the university.

“It’s tiring but it’s good. I’m open from 9 a.m. until 7 p.m.,” Ms. Malalo said. “My daughters help me, especially the youngest. I can’t support all
three in the university, so I asked the youngest to stop for a year and work with me. The eldest will finish her studies next year, and maybe she can return to school then.”

Being a business owner has its challenges, but Ms. Malalo says she’ll take them any day over the mistreatment she suffered in Germany.

“It’s exciting but it’s also scary. I sometimes lay awake in the middle of the night worrying about how much I’m spending on electricity and gas to run my food shop.”

Paul Jeffrey is a United Methodist missionary and senior correspondent for response. He blogs at

Posted or updated: 12/31/2012 11:00:00 PM