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Advocates say the number of labor trafficking victims is vastly undercounted

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Greselda De Leon says she came to Boston to make money for her family in the Philippines but was treated like a slave. Jenifer McKim from our partner station GBH News reports De Leon's story is more common in the United States than most people understand.

JENIFER MCKIM, BYLINE: De Leon worked as a nanny and a housecleaner a decade ago for a family from the United Arab Emirates. But they didn't pay her for months. She worked almost all the time, unable to go out alone, sleeping on a thin mattress on the floor of the family's apartment.

GRESELDA DE LEON: You have to clean their house, wash their dishes, cook their food, wash their clothes. You do everything, as in everything.

MCKIM: Her boss has said they'd pay her later, and she says she didn't know her legal rights. She'd also heard stories of too many other Filipina domestic workers like her treated even worse in other countries.

DE LEON: I'm just so lucky that I don't get abused. I mean, abused like, don't beat, don't rape, don't assault us because it's happening.

MCKIM: De Leon eventually escaped, sneaking down the back stairs while taking out a bag of diapers. But her story is not unique. More than 23,000 people across the country have reached out to the National Human Trafficking Hotline since 2016 to report allegations of forced labor. And advocates and government officials say those numbers are likely a vast undercount. They say labor trafficking victims like De Leon are all around us, hidden in plain sight, working in construction, hotels, restaurants and as cleaners in private homes and offices.

CADDIE NATH-FOLSOM: I think that most people have interacted with someone who is being trafficked and don't realize it because I think it's much more common than people realize.

MCKIM: That's Caddie Nath-Folsom, a legal aid attorney who works with immigrants in Massachusetts. She says many people don't see labor trafficking because they're expecting a Hollywood-type character, someone chained to a radiator or locked in a shed, forced to work without pay. Instead, she says, many, like De Leon, are imprisoned by psychological constraints, forced to work because of fear of arrest, deportation, homelessness or other threats while their traffickers profit from their misery.

NATH-FOLSOM: Instead, think of it more as being someone is being forced to work in terrible conditions, usually dangerous conditions, for unfair or no pay. And they can't leave. They can't quit is the key.

MCKIM: And abusers are rarely held accountable. Last fiscal year, the Department of Justice secured just 13 convictions primarily linked to forced labor across the country, compared to nearly 200 sex trafficking convictions. The disparity frustrates Martina Vandenberg, president of the Human Trafficking Legal Center in Washington, D.C. So 10 years ago, she started training attorneys on how to help survivors file their own lawsuits for restitution.

MARTINA VANDENBERG: I had one agent tell me that he had dubbed the U.S. Attorney's office in that jurisdiction the House of No because whenever he brought a forced labor case, the answer was no.

MCKIM: GBH News spoke with nearly a dozen survivors of trafficking, some who describe calling 911 or running out the back stairs to freedom. Some say they were never given the option to testify in a criminal proceeding, their abuse considered a simple wage dispute rather than trafficking. Others say they declined to seek charges because of fear of their traffickers or, like Greselda De Leon, because they cared for the children under their watch.

DE LEON: Those three triplets - I love them so much, and I treat them like my kids because since they were born, I'm the one to take care of them.

MCKIM: After her escape, De Leon obtained a visa meant for people who can prove to the federal government that they were a victim of a severe form of trafficking. She says she wants people to understand that there are many more labor trafficking victims like her out there, unable to ask for help.

For NPR News, I'm Jenifer McKim in Boston.

(SOUNDBITE OF AUKAI'S "TURNING DAYS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jenifer McKim