Labor trafficking thrives in the shadows. Its’ victims are often the most vulnerable among us—recently arrived immigrants, undocumented workers, domestic workers, the disabled, and young people. Exploited and cut off from the outside world, they’re often forced to live in inhumane conditions and work endless hours with little to no pay. During National Human Trafficking Awareness Month, to help bring awareness to this often overlooked injustice, John Jay College welcomed Fainess Lipenga, an anti-trafficking survivor and advocate, to share her experiences. Lipenga was joined by Martina Vandenberg, Founder and President of the Human Trafficking Legal Center, who helped explain the problem from a legal standpoint.
On January 31, in John Jay’s Moot Court, each of them held the audience’s attention in their own dynamic way, with Lipenga painting a picture of her experience from her native Malawi to Maryland, and Vandenberg breaking down trafficking myths with pop culture references and gripping labor trafficking examples. Even though the event was held on one of the coldest days this semester, many John Jay students, staff, and faculty members stayed after their presentations for a gripping Q&A session. Their stories perfectly encapsulate why John Jay’s justice-focused mission is vital for an equitable society.
Lipenga’s Story of Survival
Fainess Lipenga is a woman on a mission. Determined to tell her story and help those victimized by labor traffickers, she began by reminding the audience that she is no longer a victim. “I don’t see myself as a victim,” said Lipenga. “I survived modern slavery. I’m a leader that has a story to tell. I have work to do in order to help others.” Lipenga worked as a domestic worker for a diplomat in Malawi for two years. When her employer was offered a diplomatic position in Washington D.C. she convinced Lipenga to go with her, promising Lipenga the chance to receive a formal education and earn more money in order to help her family back home. “You can imagine how excited and grateful I felt when I was made this offer. I dropped out of school because of financial hardships. I needed to help my family. I worked with her for two years and everything was fine. There were no red flags.” With her family’s financial security in mind, Lipenga accepted the opportunity and was asked to sign a contract written in English, a language she didn’t speak or understand at the time. Once in the U.S. however, Lipenga’s life took at unexpected turn.
“I don’t see myself as a victim. I survived modern slavery. I’m a leader that has a story to tell. I have work to do in order to help others.”—Fainess Lipenga
“When we arrived in the U.S.,” said Lipenga, “my employer became a completely different person. She turned into a tiger. She became my trafficker.” Lipenga had her passport confiscated, was cut off from contacting her family, had to sleep on the basement floor, fed only scraps, and forced to work up to 17 hours a day making just 40 cents an hour. After three years of torment, Lipenga fled. “I found the courage one day to say, ‘enough is enough.’ I knew when my trafficker was in the house because I could hear the garage door open and close. One day she returned home and didn’t close the garage door completely. That was my way to freedom. I stole my passport and contract and slid under the garage door.”
After fleeing from her trafficker, Lipenga found herself in a shelter and was finally able to call her mother. After three years of not hearing her voice, her mother, elated with joy exclaimed, “Oh my God, my child, you are alive! All this time I thought you had died. What happened?” Lipenga would go on to tell her mother, as well as others, including Vandenberg, the story of her captivity. With guidance from Vandenberg and her organization the Human Trafficking Legal Center, Lipenga was able to secure her U.S. citizenship and seek out justice in her case. In 2014 her pro bono lawyers filed and won a civil complaint against her trafficker where Lipenga was awarded $1.1 million in damages.
Vandenberg’s Hope To Level The Playing Field
Martina Vandenberg, a human-trafficking lawyer who has been at the forefront of the anti-human trafficking movement for more than two decades, started her presentation with a slide and a question. “How many of you have seen the movie Taken?” she said, as many members of the audience raised their hands. “Why do you think a human-trafficking lawyer would hate this movie?” she asked. “Sensationalism,” an audience member suggested. “That’s right. So much sensationalism,” said Vandenberg. “Movies like Taken give the impression that every single victim of human trafficking is a blonde haired, blue-eyed, rich girl who is kidnapped, taken to another country and forced into prostitution. When the reality is very different. In the more than 20 years of working to help victims of human trafficking in multiple countries, I have seen that scenario once.”
“Movies like Taken give the false impression that every single victim of human trafficking is a blonde hair, blue-eyed rich girl who is kidnapped, taken to another country and forced into prostitution. When the reality is very different.” —Martina Vandenberg
Vandenberg explained that human trafficking victims often come to the U.S. of their own volition, with the promise of a better life in their sights, much like Lipenga. “It’s much easier to convince someone to go with you voluntarily, than it is to tie them up, beat them into submission and throw them in the back of a truck,” said Vandenberg. One of the first cases recognized as human trafficking in the U.S. involved 55 deaf Mexican nationals who were brought to the U.S. and forced to work 18 hours in the New York City Subway system selling trinkets. “When they didn’t meet their quotas for the day, they were beaten,” explained Vandenberg. “Some of the women were sexually abused. And to cap it all off, they were forced to make videos saying how wonderful life was in the U.S. in order to recruit others.”
One of the goals of the Human Trafficking Legal Center is for every trafficking survivor, if he or she wants one, to have a pro bono lawyer standing with them. When a worker is held in forced labor they have no power. “The point of the Human Trafficking Legal Center is to upend the balance of power so that survivors of forced labor can actually hold their traffickers accountable,” says Vandenberg.
“Labor trafficking isn’t hard to identify. It’s about making a connection, looking someone in the eye and asking questions.”—Fainess Lipenga
Becoming Part of the Solution
One way to effectively shift the balance of power is to report labor trafficking and forced labor abuse when it is suspected. “Labor trafficking isn’t hard to identify,” said Lipenga. “It’s about making a connection, looking someone in the eye and asking questions. The majority of the time, when people see there is an issue, they quickly think, ‘it’s none of my business.’ It’s time to change that thinking. It’s time to change the culture. We have to take action. If you see something, say something. Don’t be a part of the problem, be part of the solution.”
If you’re a victim of human trafficking or suspect someone is in need of help, you should call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888—its confidential and available 24/7.