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Slaves I Know: Bopha

May 13, 2010

I have had an issue burning on my heart for a long time.  Honestly, I have fought mentioning it, because I know that once I open this can of worm my life will be different.  The issue is slavery.   If you read this your life might be different too.  If you want to remain ignorant to modern slavery and pretend it doesn’t exist, you will want to stop reading now. I know the first image that comes to most people’s minds, especially Americans, is the black slaves from Africa in chains. Modern slavery is much more diversified today.

Slavery is still alive and well today and I have intimate knowledge of it.  I know it is widespread in Cambodia and culturally acceptable in many parts of Asia. Of course, no one would call it “slavery”.  After all, we have been finding politically correct terminology for several decades now.  Slavery is more commonly referred to as human trafficking, debt bondage or involuntary labor, but never slavery.

Well, on my last flight to Malaysia.  Who do you think I was randomly assigned to sit beside: yep, a slave.  Both Cambodia and Malaysia are in the top tier of slavery countries, Cambodia is a source country and Malaysia is a destination country in the human trafficking under-world.  The US State Department publically says:

Cambodia is a source, transit, and destination country for men, women, and children trafficked for the purpose of commercial sexual exploitation and forced labor. Women and girls are trafficked to Thailand and Malaysia for exploitative labor as domestic workers and forced prostitution. Some Cambodian men migrate willingly to Thailand and Malaysia for work and are subsequently subjected to conditions of forced labor in the fishing, construction, and agricultural industries.”  (U.S. State Department Trafficking in Persons Report, June, 2009)

Let me introduce you to Bopha who was assigned seat 20B next to me.  I could tell that she was a slave because they flow through the Phnom Penh airport every day and they all look exactly the same.  They girls are scared and usually have big eyes as they look around in fear.  They stay in a group and remain silent all huddled together.  They all wear the same clothes, only different colors, and they have matching bags.  The other easy sign to spot is the short hair.  Cambodian girls have beautiful hair and most of them keep in long and beautiful, but these girls all have their hair recently cropped short hair and usually it is quite mess a or standing on end as they have had long hair their whole lives.  Clearly the haircut were a cheap in-house job.

As we boarded the plane I noticed the “handler” who sat up in the front next to one of the girls.  They were scattered in all the middle seats across the plane.  Bopha sat next to me.  She was crying. I started up a conversation in Khmer with her.  She was surprised that I spoke Khmer, but glad to talk.  I asked her why she decided to travel to Malaysia to work as a maid.  She responded that she didn’t want to go. She continued crying.

There was a nicely dressed Cambodian lady on the other side who became intrigued in the conversation and began consoling Bopha.  Over the next hour and a half flight, Bopha explained her story:

Bopha knew many girls that went as maids from her rural village in Kompong Cham province.  She recalls ten girls from her immediate village who were much younger (14-17 years old) who all went to Malaysia on the promise of making a lot of money.  They were promised they could earn about $2,000 for two years of work as a domestic maid.  She said, all ten of the girls came back within 18 months with no money and on the brink of starvation.  Their slender bodies had been reduced to emasculated skeletons.  Most took more than a year to recover from their health problems.

The obvious question I asked was, “So, why did you want to go?”  She said she didn’t really want to go, but there was a recruiter who came to the village and promised them that what happened to those girls was rare and they were obviously from a “bad” company; not like theirs!  So she decided to go and check out the company in Phnom Penh. When she arrived she went through the training for 2 days.  After two days she knew that it was not for her, so she told them she would like to go home.  The company manager told her she could not go home until after she paid off her debt.

“What debt?” she questioned.

The manager told her that she owed the company $250 for what they paid the recruiter and two days worth of food.  She cried.  $250 is close to the average annual income of most Cambodians.  She called home and told her family they would not let her leave.  She begged her family to find money from the relatives to pay her debt.

She had no choice but to stay and continue until her family could pay off the debt.  After two months she got exciting news from her family.  They had come up with the $250 and would send it to Phnom Penh. She approached the manager and told him that she had the $250 to pay off the debt.

“Oh no, now it is $750 you owe!” screamed the manager.  He continued, “You eat too much food and we had to prepare all the paperwork for you to go work in Malaysia.”

Bopha could only cry.

Bopha was not a young girl like most of the girls the companies prey on; she is 31.  They prefer the girls between 14-17 because they are innocent, can work long hours, and don’t know anything about their legal rights so they won’t cause the companies any trouble.  When the company gets their passports though, their ages are changed to 25 and above for ease of travel; although anyone can tell the difference between a 14 year old and a 25 year old.

Bopha told me she had six children, but only four were living. The other two died of malnutrition. Her husband is trying to go to Korea to work in a factory.  Similar situations there.   Bopha left her kids with relatives and now was locked in for at least two years.  As she was leaving they told her the company would take all the money earned for the first seven months.  They also went through her belongings and confiscated all her money ($3.00) and an old cell phone and an address book.  They forbid them from calling or even knowing where they are living in Malaysia.

I felt sorry for Bopha.  I had a choice to make.  Was it possible for me to help her?  Or should I just keep her story buried deep in my soul and hope I forget about Bopha.  I made a decision.  I reached up to my bag and got my cell phone and a piece of paper.  Her handler was sitting pretty close to me, so I needed to be quick and discrete. I told her that if anyone physically hurts her or she was starving to just run away and ask a taxi to take her to the Cambodian embassy (not that they would help her, but at least she could get around someone who speaks her language.) Then I gave her my phone number and phone number of a friend in Malaysia. She is illiterate, so I just taught her quickly how to use a cell phone and wrote the numbers down for her very clearly.  Then I told her to hide the piece of paper so no one will find it.  I also taught her how she could “sneak” calls on someone’s cell phone.   I explained how after she made a call she must remove the battery so that it would erase the memory of what number she called.  The last thing I could do was pray for her.

I felt horrible.  I felt angry. This was not 1860, this was going on right around me and right around everyone else in the plane and everyone knew it.  The airlines know it.  The governments know it.  The police know it.  The employers know it. They are the only ones making money and these poor girls are going to lose two years of their life and likely receive no compensation at all.  Many come back battered and abused, some never come back.  Hence, they are slaves.  Bopha is a slave.  She is being forced against her will to work. She is being forced to leave her country.  Upon arrival in Malaysia the handler will confiscate her passport and she will be stuck.  There are a thousand miles of ocean between Malaysia and Cambodia so she is completely at the mercy of others who wish only to make money from her.

For weeks now I have been preparing a series of blogs.  I am entitling them “slaves I know”.  I want to do something about this, but I cannot do it alone.  I know far too many salves to look the other way. Ask God how you may help girls like Bopha.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. Karin permalink
    May 13, 2010 11:05 am

    Thank you for sharing that Steve. Slavery has been on my heart too. There is an organization called the A21 Campaign that is dedicated to ending slavery. It was started out of Hillsong. They can help you out in making a difference there in Cambodia. Here’s their website:

    • May 13, 2010 12:25 pm

      Thanks for the link. There are actually hundreds of groups (which shows the scope of the problem) against slavery. I only recommend to avoid those who “talk only” and do nothing. I would also recommend: Not For Sale.

  2. Janelle Khoo permalink
    May 13, 2010 11:08 am

    Hey Steve, Thank you for this post. I totally understood the worries of this girl. Once they come over, the agencies take their passport so that they will not run away. Some will attempt to runaway and we cannot blame them for they are so badly treated. It is a shame. But when they run away, they have no passport and no way of returning to their own country. That is why they go missing. They have syndicates here who tries to persuade the helper to run promising them more money and better life. But infact, what they do not know is, these syndicate will exploit them further and make them work illegally. Some factories and certain trades will go through these syndicates saying that they need workers and they do this illegally because it is cheaper than doing it legally. Many times, the promise of more money will be dashed. These illegal workers have to hide from the authorities plus many of them are not even paid.

    Our family had a Cambodian helper who helped us take care of my grandma. She was great help to us. When my grandmother died, we sent her back to Cambodia. We paid her the salary she deserved (to the amount of few thousand USD) and sent her home. We told her to keep her money with her at all times when she went back to the agency cause we are afraid that the agency may tell her that she need to pay for certain fees etc which should not happen. The money was for her. She was very happy to be going home and she said she wanted to buy land or a vehicle for the family. She mentioned that she wanted to return again. There are good stories out of this. Perhaps the bad ones over shadow the good. Not that we should forget the bad. If I were in your situation, I would not know what to do either.

    • May 13, 2010 12:22 pm

      The sad thing is that everyone knows what is going on. These workers have rights, and rights under the law, but they are often abused for the sake of profit. I met two other Cambodian girls last week who were in good situations. (They were both underage- children. One still had baby teeth that needed dental work) but they were not treated poorly. The agency they went with was much better than some. There are agencies which are worse than others. It is a complex issue and requires a complex solution, most importantly it requires people to take responsibility for what is going on around them. Thanks for the comments.

  3. Sam permalink
    May 13, 2010 3:14 pm

    I just met a guy (from bangladesh) working at a petrol station… (became a friend since months ago) cut the story short, he was ‘cheated’ about RM3k from the previous employer and his current employer ‘help’ to deduct this current salary…. he was in tears as saying how can the ppl treat him like that, even they believe in the same God, and till had no food to eat…

    Besides hearing him out, I can do is just put some money for him in his pocket… will check him out soon again…

    But the main key thing, do we really love people & care for them even though they are foreigners or do we treat them like slaves?

  4. lcourtney permalink
    May 14, 2010 6:31 am

    That is my heart issue also! Been learning about the Karen children sold into slavery by their families inside Thailand.

  5. Michael Scott permalink
    September 30, 2010 9:24 pm

    Hey I used to live around one of these “dorms” in the city. The girls on their 1st term overseas were kept caged and were not let out. Some of the girls were outside. I asked them why they were out and they said they were preparing for a 2nd term overseas.

    So I am not at all trying to say there isnt any slavery going on here.. or that some of these girls arent in horrible circumstances.. but maybe a few seem to be prospering by this.

    I think we would here more reports or Licado (sp) would say more about this here, if it was as bad as it appears.

    • September 30, 2010 10:35 pm

      There actually is tons of information and reports of this. The Khmer newspapers are filled with the horror stories each day. Lichado also reports frequently on this. There are dozens of organizations trying to do something about this. Just in the last two weeks I met 3 girls who had horror stories (and I wasn’t looking for them). One was severely burned and was given no compensation as well. When you take girls from the village with no education and no hope and give them the promise of a few thousand dollars it is tough to sway them away from the lure of money. It is impossible to know how many are affected because too many powerful people are involved. The difficult thing about modern slavery is that it is all around us, but it looks “legitimate”. If only they had chains on their necks and were sold in the town square they would be more easy to identify!

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