*Lester Ramos voiceover dubbing by Johann Diel.*
Lester Ramos: I was so full of hope, I said, here it begins. I need to start working immediately, because I have a lot of debt in the Philippines. Then when I arrived in Tennessee, I found out that there was no job.
Stefanie Ritoper: Trafficking. So when you think about trafficking, lots of images immediately come to mind. It can feel like something far away, secretive, something that happens to somebody else.
Saba Waheed: But it turns out that labor trafficking is one of the most common forms of trafficking, forcing people to work through the use of force, fraud or coercion. Who does this happen to? And how does it happen? From the UCLA Labor Center and KPFK this is Re:Work. I’m Saba Waheed.
Stefanie Ritoper: And I’m Stefanie Ritoper. Today on Re:Work, Set Hernandez Ronquillo brings us this story about Lester Ramos, who shares his journey from the Philippines.
Lester Ramos: You know in the Philippines, there are only 3 options for a better life. To win the lottery, which is almost impossible, your chances are like point zero, zero something. Two, join networking schemes so you can get rich, but mostly with those schemes, only those who are on top get rich. And three; to work abroad.
Set Hernandez Ronquillo: Lester is from Cavite, in the Philippines. When his father abandoned the family, his mother left Lester under the care of his grandparents. They raised him as their own child. Lester grew up in poverty and could barely afford to pay for school, but he still had big dreams for his future.
Lester Ramos: I always said that I wanted to be a writer. I really wanted to inspire other people.
I wanted to write adventure stories. Create a story that has an impact on people. Every story would have a lesson to motivate them in life. I wanted to create characters who could be recognized and remain in the minds of the people.
Life in the Philippines is hard, even if you have dreams, you can’t achieve them because of lack of finances.
Set Hernandez Ronquillo: As a kid, Lester peddled goods in the street; later, he worked at a church to pay for his high school studies. But paying for college was much more difficult.
Lester Ramos: Many people say that Filipinos are lazy. And that’s why they are poor. They prefer to just stand around instead of persevering in life, because if you persevere, you can achieve things. But actually, I don’t believe in luck. Many people want to study, many want to get out of poverty, many want to progress. What’s lacking is opportunity. How do you support your studies? For many people, instead of going to school, they would just think of food. That’s how bad poverty is in the Philippines.
I really needed to work. I also tried studying while working, I went to vocational school. But our budget really could not allow it. In addition to my parents, I was also supporting my siblings. It was like that. But I knew within myself that someday, I’ll get somewhere. It wasn’t easy for me when I got married because I started from scratch. So, I just worked hard, and then we had two kids.
Set Hernandez Ronquillo: Lester started off in construction and then in 1995 got a job in manufacturing. He rose up in the ranks from operator to unit leader to staff and finally material controller. But even higher up, he still struggled to support his family.
Lester Ramos: Even if I had a better job compared to others, it was still not enough for the groceries, for monthly expenses, my balance was usually negative.
The earnings from regular jobs, it all goes to food, how about the other expenses, the other needs of the whole family? Even if you work in an office, and earn 1200 a month, how much is electricity, how much is water? My ATM card never stayed in my wallet, it was always at the pawnshop. Every time, we had to borrow money, even to pay for our debt. My wife also wanted to give our children a better life, and that time, we had been fighting almost everyday because of our finances. We would usually fight when our children got sick and they needed to be taken to the hospital, and I didn’t have the money, and I had nowhere to get money from, no one to borrow from.
So one time, it happened that my son saw that our neighbor had a new bike. He tried to borrow the bike and touched it. So the owner of the bike pushed him. My son got a cut. I was just arriving from work when I saw my son crying because of his cut. He said, “Papa, I want a bike” I said, “My child, that’s not ours”
I couldn’t tell off the other kid who pushed him because he owned the bike, and my son was trying to take it. In my mind, I was thinking, “what kind of a father am I, that I can’t give what my son wants.” Because you know, for fathers, it’s an achievement for us to be able to give our children what they want, I couldn’t buy for my son even a simple bicycle.
Since then, I said, I don’t want my life to be like this. I said to myself, I will always find a way to give them what they want. That’s when I started thinking about going abroad.
Set Hernandez Ronquillo: The more he thought about it, the more he realized how limited his options were in the Philippines.
Lester Ramos: Whenever they can benefit, the Philippine government, will side with the big businesses, such as the foreign investors who start their businesses in the Philippines, where they can pay workers less.
I really couldn’t find hope to become better off in the Philippines, so I thought, I’ll go abroad. I started looking at the newspapers, and other places, but it was always nothing, I wouldn’t get accepted. One time, my friend said that he was applying to go to New Zealand.
I had a day off then, so I went with him. Unfortunately, when we got there, they were looking for someone with experience in molding. I didn’t have experience in molding, so I wasn’t accepted. I told my friend that I’ll just wait outside. While waiting, I saw an advertisement for a material controller in the USA. It was in the same building, on the second floor, I said, “Ah, material controller, that’s my profession so maybe they will accept me.” So I entered, inquired, and they told me that in Illinois, I can be a lumber stacker, so I applied. There was an initial fee of 500 dollars. I had to borrow money from my sibling who worked in South Korea as an entertainer.
The owner interviewed me, then gave me a briefing on the possible expenses. And then I had to do a medical exam. After the exam, they said they will call me. This is the story of how I applied to go to America. This happened in 2009. June and July came and they never called me. So I went to the agency to follow up. When I got to the agency, they said the visa quota for the United States was reached, so I would have to wait until next year. I just thought to myself, I got robbed 500 dollars, which is quite a lot of money.
Set Hernandez Ronquillo: Lester had almost given up, but then he got a call back from the agency.
Lester Ramos: On September 11, 2009, the agency called me and asked me to report to them because they had an offer for me. There was a visa that would allow me to work in Tennessee, but what they wanted was for me to shift from a material controller to an amusement park worker in Tennessee, and if it was possible for me to give a processing fee, they would schedule an appointment at the US embassy. They asked me for maybe about 2000 dollars to pay for our employer in the US, for our accommodation, insurance, etc.
So that time, I really didn’t have any money. My sibling had some jewelry, so I brought all of them to a pawnshop.
Set Hernandez Ronquillo: Lester paid the fees and scheduled an appointment with the US Embassy. And after all that, he made it through.
But, then the agency told him that it would be an additional 2 thousand dollars for the plane ticket. At this point, with no one else to borrow money from, Lester took out a loan through a lending agency. Even though he had to take on debt, Lester felt the opportunity was worth it.
Lester Ramos: I was so full of hope, I said, here it begins. I need to start working immediately, because I have a lot of debt in the Philippines. I have debt from my sibling, from my friend, from the lending agency.
Set Hernandez Ronquillo: So Lester packed his bags, said goodbyes to his family, and took his first ever plane trip, to the United States.
After hours on the plane, he finally arrived in Tennessee. Looking around, America was not what he had imagined.
Lester Ramos: When I first arrived here in America I was really shocked, “Is this America?”
Because in the Philippines, when we watch movies, they are in New York. I thought there was no dirt streets, only cement, only buildings.
It was as if I was not in America, that I was in a province in the Philippines.
Then when I arrived in Tennessee, I found out that there was no job. They said the ski resort was not open yet. So, they said they will bring us to Alabama to get training.
So the next day, the following morning, they put us in a van going to Alabama. The trip was eight hours. There were nine of us.
After the first four hours, we stopped because we were hungry, because we didn’t have breakfast. We stopped at at a fast food place, we thought they were going to buy us food, but they only bought food for themselves.
Many of us didn’t have pocket money, because the agency told us that we didn’t need to bring pocket money, because when we arrive, we can work immediately, and even with one dollar, they said we can buy a hamburger.
What we ended up doing is, whoever had some, bought something and we all shared it. But at that time, I felt that it did not feel right.
First, our job, it didn’t seem to be true,. Then the first personnel of the employer, bought food only for themself. So I said, there seemed to be something wrong.
After 4 hours, they brought us to an abandoned house, where there were no furnitures, no utensils, no kitchen stuff, it was totally abandoned. They left us there for three days. We stayed there without anything.
So, we went out, we bought a rice cooker. We had rice, canned goods with us, so we used those for three days. We cooked all of it in a rice cooker, because there was nothing else. It was cold in Alabama, it was October, we didn’t have anything, we only had jackets, the house didn’t have comforters, We slept on the floor and it was very cold. We were in that condition for three days.
After three days, they came back, and then they put us in different places in Alabama. Three of us ended up in Fairhope Alabama, in a house there. The good thing was that there was a Filipino living in the house where they brought us. I talked to them and asked if we can borrow some money. It was like you just met them and you are already borrowing money because we really didn’t have any food.
Set Hernandez Ronquillo: All of this took place before they even knew where they were going to work.
Lester Ramos: Then they just showed us where we are going to work, at Wendy’s. After two days, We got a call from Wendy’s for us to fill-out the application form. We probably walked for three hours because we didn’t know the location, we were getting lost.
When we got to Wendy’s they gave us a schedule, and in the schedule, we had broken time, three times a day. We had a shift in the morning, a shift in the afternoon, and one at night.
When my shift ended, I couldn’t just go home because it was far, I would just wait outside Wendy’s for my next shift. Mostly, I would be in Wendy’s for about 12 hours, 14 hours but they were only paying us for 5 hours of work. That was my schedule.
Most of the time, I would go home by myself. It would already be dark, there were no street lights. Once a dog ran after me.
Set Hernandez Ronquillo: Lester doesn’t know why Wendy’s was the site of a trafficking scheme. Maybe it was a mixup and the traffickers meant for the workers to go to another site. Or maybe the confusing information was the plan all along.
In any case, to any customer walking into that Wendy’s in Alabama to buy a burger, Lester would look like any other employee. But for him, something else was going on.
The people that brought Lester were taking a cut. They only came by the house to drop off checks for the workers. Lester was earning $450 each month. 300 of that went to the lending agency.
Lester Ramos: So what was left for my family? Ah, my family was going hungry, and then I couldn’t pay for my debt because it only goes to the lending agency.
And then I heard that all those sponsored by our employer were denied by immigration because they didn’t need foreign workers in Alabama. So I got scared, I talked to our employer, their personnel, I asked if there was any hopes of renewing our papers.
They told us to find someone else to sponsor us. It was a crisis during that time. We didn’t know anything about Alabama, we didn’t see any Filipinos, how could we apply and look for someone to sponsor us? It was hard.
Set Hernandez Ronquillo: The work was grueling and it was isolating. It started to take a toll on Lester.
He probably wasn’t going to find a job in Alabama, and he didn’t have the connections to find a job someplace else.
This is labor trafficking. Globally, the International Labor Organization estimates that there are 20.1 million people trapped in forced labor in industries including agriculture, construction, domestic work and manufacturing.
One day, he saw on social media that someone he knew lived in Miami. He had a spark of hope. Maybe this was a way out. He called his friend and it turns out there was a job for him.
Lester Ramos: My problem became how to get to Miami. I talked personally to the Wendy’s manager and filed my resignation. He said that I couldn’t do it, that I was not allowed to work in other places because I’m supposed to stay with my employer. He said if I work somewhere else, they will deport me. They said that wherever I am in America, they will locate me, so I was scared.
I took the risk, and said that I will leave no matter what happened. I told them that I will take the greyhound. They said they will find me at the greyhound bus. But, I went online and bought a ticket. To Miami.
Set Hernandez Ronquillo: Even though Lester escaped his trafficking situation, things outside weren’t exactly easy.
When Lester initially escaped Alabama, he ended up becoming undocumented. And because of his status, he had to accept these grueling work conditions.
He was stocking food in a warehouse in Miami, where he would go back and forth from the sweltering heat to an ice cold freezer. Then, as a caregiver, he often had to work shifts that were nearly 24 hours, six days a week.
Lester Ramos: That’s the thing because I lived in fear, I lived in that condition where I thought that I didn’t have rights because I didn’t have papers, that I didn’t have the right to refuse what my boss asked me to do.
Set Hernandez Ronquillo: After all that happened to him, Lester was reluctant to trust anyone. Until one day, a friend told him about a place where he could get help.
Lester Ramos: We were hesitant because we didn’t want to reveal our status, that we were undocumented. And we were afraid to trust anyone. Actually the first time I was interviewed by the Filipino Migrant Center, frankly speaking, I did not give them my real address. Because I was scared.
But when I got the telephone number of Joanna, and I called her and talked to her for the first time, and I saw her sincerity that she wanted to help us. That time, I really cried, I begged for her help. So she scheduled a meeting with us at the FMC office, so we went. There, we found out that we were trafficking victims, and that we could apply for a T-visa.
I found out through the Filipino Migrant Center that because the contract they gave me was not followed, that the promised job for me was not real, and I paid a large amount to the agency, and there was still no work for me, that’s where I found out that that is also human trafficking.
Set Hernandez Ronquillo: Lester’s experience inspired him to get more involved with the Filipino Migrant Center (or as he calls it, FMC).
Lester Ramos: They helped me to process my papers, I said, if there’s anything I can do to help FMC, I wanna spend my day off at FMC in return for what they did for us. I want to help other people who had the same experiences as me. That’s where I started.
So we started to organize. We talked to those whom FMC helped, or other workers I knew, to be permanent members of FMC. Then from 5 members, maybe it is now about 25, 30 members. Tomorrow, we will launch our own chapter as Migrante South Bay/Orange county.That’s why my fear disappeared, because at least now, I am organizing workers.
Set Hernandez Ronquillo: Lester still thinks about writing stories, but his experience as an Overseas Filipino Worker has shifted his perspective.
Lester Ramos: Back then, I wanted to write adventure stories. I wanted to create stories from imagination. Now I don’t have to just create something. Now, I want to expose what is really happening. What people don’t know.
From the Philippines to here in America. Filipinos in America, Filipinos in the Middle East. And what can people do to change the system, to change their way of life.
Set Hernandez Ronquillo: Lester is petitioning his family. He’s already thinking about their reunion
Lester Ramos:I want to hug them, I want to see the faces of my children whom I left because they spent their whole childhood without me by their side, all their “firsts” they had without me with them. The first time they stood, their first word, their first school, first birthday, everything for my youngest child, I wasn’t there. My first child, my son. I remember him, he couldn’t sleep without me next to him.
When I left, my wife said that for a whole month, my son could not sleep. Everytime he would hear a motorcycle passing by, he would wake up my wife saying, “Papa is here, mama, mama, papa is here.” When my wife told me that, I really cried.
I’ll spend quality time with them, hug them, make them feel that here, your papa is here. It’s nice to think about it, right?
Stefanie Ritoper: Thanks to Lester for sharing his story. Since taping this interview, Lester has become the chair of Migrante South Bay, a grassroots organization that protects Pilipino workers’ rights. And, some good news, he was also reunited with his family. His wife and kids now live with him in the United States.
Saba Waheed: Thank you to Joanna Concepcion and the Filipino Migrant Center for partnering with us on this story. You can find out more about their work https://filipinomigrantcenter.org/.
Stefanie Ritoper: You’re listening to Re:Work, a program of the UCLA Labor Center and KPFK. This show was produced by Set Hernandez Ronquillo, Linett Luna, Veena Hampapur, Saba Waheed, Stefanie Ritoper and Nathan Moore. Voiceover dubbing by Johann Diel. Transcript translation provided by Hiyasmin Saturay.
Visit our website at reworkradio.org or visit us on Facebook at forward slash reworkradio. You can also tweet your reactions to this show to @rework underscore radio, or send us an email at rework@IRLE.ucla.edu.