I was kidnapped into the sex trade

Mine is probably not the story of human trafficking you imagine.

In my native Indonesia, I was a college-educated financial analyst employed by an international bank. I lost my job in 1998 because of political turbulence and its fallout. So I broadened my job search to the United States. After responding to an advertisement for a job in a Chicago hotel, I checked the legal documents, paid a recruiter fee, accepted the position and flew to New York City.

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I entered the United States lawfully on a nonimmigrant visa arranged through the “recruiting organization” that brought me here. I was picked up at the airport, along with five other women, by men we all believed were affiliated with our recruiter. Shortly thereafter, however, our passports were forcibly removed, our lives were threatened and the situation became clear: we were being trafficked into the sex trade.

After enduring many months of rape and violence, I finally escaped by jumping out a bathroom window. Far from home, and without money, shelter, or knowledge of where to go, it was difficult to survive after I escaped. Finally, I met someone who connected me with law enforcement and I received a referral to Safe Horizon, a victim assistance agency in New York City. Eventually, I participated in the prosecution of my traffickers, and believe they were brought to justice.

I believe even more strongly, however, that stronger regulation of foreign labor recruitment would have prevented my nightmare in the first place, and would save thousands more from a similar fate.

Labor recruiters and contractors are directly involved in the trafficking and exploitation of workers in the United States who, like me, enter the country lawfully through nonimmigrant visa programs. They make false promises about American jobs and charge workers high administration or recruitment fees that force workers to stay in abusive or exploitative working conditions under debt bondage.

I know several trafficking survivors who paid up to $20,000 in recruitment fees for jobs that didn’t exist. In most cases, they borrowed the money from people or institutions in their home country that expect to be paid back. Now exploited, trafficked and unpaid, they cannot pay back those loans.

Congress has an opportunity to help prevent this kind of abuse. The Fraudulent Overseas Recruitment and Trafficking Elimination (FORTE) Act of 2013 (HR 3344) currently has 24 co-sponsors. The legislation would deter human trafficking, forced labor and exploitation by:

  • Increasing transparency for workers coming to the United States by providing them with accurate information about the job, visa, and other terms and conditions of work;
  • Ensuring that no fees for recruitment are charged to workers;
  • Requiring registration of the recruitment agency at the Department of Labor; and
  • Enforcing a penalty if the law is not followed.

In addition to passing this important legislation, my hope is that policy makers will recognize the need for services once victims escape their traffickers. As glad as I was to be free after I escaped, I could not go to the doctor because I had no medical coverage or money and couldn’t work because of immigration, work authorization and language barriers. Many foreign national survivors find themselves in this difficult situation where they can’t work here and can’t pay back the loan at home because they were not paid for the job they came here to do. Because I found services through Safe Horizon, I am staying legally in the United States and am able to support myself through a catering business.

I am also a trafficking victim advocate. I encounter men and women from all over the world who have experienced human trafficking in some form. They are from different nations, cultures and backgrounds, but many have one thing in common: they were brought here by a seemingly reputable recruiting agency.

With an estimated 14,000 individuals trafficked into this country each year, it’s a problem that needs to be addressed. HR 3344 is one important part of the solution. Please, try and imagine what it feels like to be exploited and brutalized, then do the right thing by making it more difficult for traffickers to bring people like me into the United States for the most inhumane of purposes.

Woworuntu is a survivor advocate with Voices of Hope, a program of Safe Horizon.