Shandra Woworuntu came to the United States from Indonesia in 2001. She planned to work as a hotel waitress.
But starting the day she arrived, she says a different reality took shape: forced sex work and forced labor, mostly cleaning people’s homes. To this day, she can still hear her traffickers’ commands.
“Clean! Do that. Do this. Clean it! Clean it,” she recalled.
Cases like Woworuntu’s are likely happening right before our eyes, right now: in some hotels where we stay, in some stores where we shop, even sometimes in our own front yards!
Our region has a history of labor trafficking. Six years ago, Philadelphia was the epicenter of an international trafficking bust. The Botsvynyuk brothers trafficked young victims, who were recruited in their native Ukraine with promises of a chance to live near the Liberty Bell.
Prosecutors say, when the victims arrived, they slept on old, dirty mattresses, were rarely paid, and ate out of a common pot, sitting on the floor.
“You could hear a pin drop when they were describing what happened to them,” said Daniel Velez, the Assistant U.S. Attorney who prosecuted the case.
Velez tells us, the victims worked as janitors in major chain stores, like Wal-Mart and Target – seen by many of us, and yet, hidden by the routine nature of their work.
“Trafficking takes place in secret. It hides in plain sight – but the facts happen in secret,” said Velez.
Those “secrets” make it difficult to track. Since 2012, among hundreds of hotline calls, advocates identified 78 cases of labor trafficking in Pennsylvania, 61 cases in New Jersey, and 4 cases in Delaware.
Many of the victims worked in domestic service, hospitality, construction, restaurants, and agriculture.
And yet, Philadelphia has seen no labor trafficking prosecutions since the Botsvyunyuks.
“We really have what I would call a ‘black hole’ of enforcement around labor trafficking in our country,” said Colleen Owens, a senior research associate at the Urban Institute.
Owens has studied labor trafficking extensively and has interviewed dozens of victims, including some from our region. So, the NBC10 Investigators took those concerns directly to the top.
“We haven’t had as much success as I would like,” said Zane D. Memeger, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.
Memeger acknowledges, every one of us has likely encountered a victim somewhere in the Philadelphia region. But he says most stay quiet because of language barriers, mistrust of law enforcement, and lingering fear of their traffickers.
“I know that we have a dedicated group of prosecutors, a dedicated group of agents, working very hard to prosecute these cases,” said Memeger.
“Why has it been so hard to bring them to trial, then?” asked investigative reporter George Spencer.
“I think the reality is, one, you have to identify the victims,” replied Memeger.
Based on her interviews, Owens believes many victims are more willing to testify than prosecutors claim. But ultimately, she says, it’s up to the public to ask who’s serving out food, working at our hotels, or cleaning our homes.
“The more you point to the perpetrator, the more you’re sort of pointing back to yourself – because you’re a part of this,” said Owens.
Each of us should keep an eye out for people who have no contact with friends or family, homes with inhumane living conditions, and workers with excessive and unusual hours. The F.B.I. says all those flags could be indicators of trafficking.