“A battle between ants and an elephant” is how Huong, one of nine Vietnamese survivors of human trafficking and labor exploitation whom I met in Malta while working with the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) as part of my Tertianship program, describes their ongoing struggle for justice.
I asked to work with JRS Malta for two reasons. First: the refugee issue is of global significance nowadays. Second: I was a refugee twenty-five years ago when I arrived in America. I wanted to take this chance to refresh and reflect on my own experience and hoped to share it with new comers to Malta. While at JRS Malta, in addition to providing pastoral care, assistance to access employment, and social support to refugees and asylum seekers, I was asked to help with translation and support for nine Vietnamese victims of trafficking, seven women and two men, who were being assisted by the organization.
Although all of them are adults, aged between 28 and 45, they looked so small, like teenagers. The smallest one was about 1 meter 20 centimeters high and weighed only around 50 kilograms. Yet, according to their accounts, they were made to work up to 14 hours a day sewing and pressing clothes, at times without even one day off per week. Although the Vietnamese agency that recruited them promised that they would be paid the local minimum wage, once they got to Malta they realized that the wage was far lower – little more than they would earn in Vietnam. Worse, their employer retained most of what they earned, giving them only 150 Euros in cash every two months. They testified that the company also held their passports and threatened them with deportation if they complained about their conditions or breached the rules of the factory.
All of them felt cheated, since the conditions were so different from what they were promised and they had paid so much money – 90,000,000 Vietnamese dong, i.e. around 3,600 Euros – to be hired for this job. Feeling too pressured by the debt incurred in Vietnam, which they could not repay as they were not receiving any money from the company, and by the exploitation at work, three of the Vietnamese workers decided to escape.
As they were attempting to leave the country with false documents, they were apprehended by the immigration authorities and detained. It was while they were in detention that, for the first time since their arrival in Malta, they were in contact with the police and employment officials, who informed them about their rights and started investigating the company for human trafficking and labor exploitation. It was in detention too that they met JRS staff, who have supported them since.
Just weeks later, another six Vietnamese workers left the company and sought assistance to obtain redress for the harm they suffered. They have now been fighting for more than a year. Though it is a long wait and it is not really clear what they will get, all of them are determined to fight to the end. Even if they feel frustrated at times, they are no longer afraid of their employer. They are willing to face him for the sake of justice. The long and complex process, which pits them against a powerful adversary, can be psychologically exhausting – they compare it to eggs against rocks, or ants battling an elephant. However, when they come together, they are all determined not to give up on their rights and to have their mistreatment compensated.
I see this as a hidden battle of victims of human trafficking. It is not only these nine Vietnamese who are victims of human trafficking, there are millions of people all over the world who are victims of human trafficking today. However, human trafficking is a hidden battle, because at this moment, the crisis of refugees all over the world has overshadowed the battle of victims of human trafficking, which flows into oblivion. I pray that though they are victims and they are hidden, they do not give up their hope. I also pray that they will be heard by the world someday, so that no one has to be exploited by any means or by anyone. May justice soon shine on the life of victims of human trafficking in Malta and all over the world.
Hanh D. Pham, S.J. is a tertian from Dublin, Ireland. He is a Vietnamese American Jesuit from US South Central Province. He came to the United States twenty-five years ago as a refugee. He entered the Jesuits in 1997 and was ordained a priest in 2008.