by Momar Visaya/AJPress
NEW YORK – “My eyes became blurry from crying every night. It was like I did not have hope to escape or to continue to live. I thought about committing suicide because I was so depressed,” Marichu Baoanan said in between sobs, as she narrated what transpired during the winter of 2006.
After keeping her silence for more than two years, Baoanan broke her silence and spoke about the case she has filed against former United Nations Ambassador Lauro Baja, his wife Norma Baja and daughter Elizabeth Baja Facundo for violating federal laws against human trafficking. The Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF) filed the complaint in New York federal court on behalf of Banaoan.
At a press conference Wednesday, July 9, Baoanan said she paid P250,000 to Norma Baja and her travel agency, Labaire International Travel, for her airfare to the United States, her visa, a work permit and job placement. A nursing graduate, Baoanan thought she would be working as a nurse.
Holding her tears, she said that she arrived in New York in January 2006 and was taken straight to the Upper East Side townhouse where the Bajas lived. She said that Norma Baja took her passport. She was then told that she needed to work for them so she could pay off her debt.
Since Mr. Baja was an ambassador, Baoanan said that there were always parties in the house. She claimed that she was the only domestic worker in the house so most of the time, she was the only one left awake in the house, cleaning up and washing dishes non-stop for several hours.
“The earliest I would finish my work would be at midnight. My body ached from exhaustion and I felt so devastated,” she said.
“Grabe ang paghihirap ko sa kanila. Sobra. Inabuso nila ako ng husto,” she added.
The 39-year-old Baoanan also described other atrocities that the Baja family allegedly committed while she worked with them for three months.
She said that she was not fed well and were only given leftovers and that she would be watched to the point that she could not swallow her food anymore.
Baoanan arrived during the middle of winter, and she had no idea how cold it was in New York and the only clothes she had were thin pairs of pants, t-shirts and slippers. She said she endured the situation even if her entire body was shivering from the cold.
She also took care of the Bajas’ grandson, Elizabeth’s son, who by then was five years old. Baoanan said that the grandson hit her with a broom, spat in her face and kicked her in the face in front of the former ambassador.
“I felt like they treated me worse than an animal. They didn’t treat me like a person,” she said, adding that she was also called “stupid” and “slow”.
“I served the Bajas for three months – cooked, took care of the child, cleaned the really big townhouse, did the laundry, ironed and other tasks as a domestic worker. In return, they paid me with curses, insults, disrespect and $100 from Beth. What do I call this kind of experience? Oppression. Slavery,” Baoanan, a mother of three, added.
Because of what she describes as a “good samaritan,” she was able to escape from the house.
“There is simply no truth to what she is claiming,” Salvador Tuy, lawyer of the Bajas, told the media after the press conference. He showed photographs of Banaoan in full winter gear. “We will provide more pictures because we have taken pictures of her touring the United Nations in full boot gear in the middle of winter.”
The lawyer also disputed Banaoan’s statement that the Bajas got her passport when she arrived.
“That’s simply not true. All you have to do is to go to the Philippine Consulate and you will find out the she renewed her passport. You will find out that she still has her diplomatic passport,” Tuy added.
In earlier interviews in the Philippines, the former ambassador has likewise disputed Banaoan’s claims.
In an interview with DZMM, Baja said that Baoanan had a room to herself on the same floor of the Philippine consulate’s building in New York, contrary to her claim that she stayed at the basement.
“She was sleeping on the second floor, she was eating the same food,” Baja also said.
He also denied allegations that Banaoan was only paid $100 for the three months that she worked with them. Baja said Banaoan received $200 a month.
The former ambassador’s wife told the Inquirer that they did not commit the allegations being thrown at them by Banaoan.
“Hindi naman kami walanghiya (We’re not shameless),” she was quoted as saying.
Mrs. Baja also denied that Baoanan was made to eat leftovers, saying they had more than enough food in the house. She also said she had given Baoanan used winter clothes and had bought her a pair of winter rubber shoes, contrary to what Banaoan claims.
“Human trafficking is far more complex than many people realize,” said AALDEF staff attorney Ivy Suriyopas, who leads the organization’s Anti-Trafficking Initiative. “It can involve domestic workers that cook food for, clean the house of, and take care of the children of your next-door neighbor. Trafficking involves the severe exploitation of workers regardless of the industry of the worker or the reputation of the trafficker.”
Under the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA), individuals can sue their former traffickers and also legalize their immigration status. “T” visas are available to sex and labor trafficking survivors who have been subjected to force, fraud or coercion.
Through the DAMAYAN Migrant Workers Association, a Filipino labor rights group, and AALDEF, Baoanan was able to secure a T visa and Derivative T visas for her husband and three children.
She was reunited with her family in April 2008.
“The only reason why I came here was to work and make money to support my family – for their day-to-day survival and so that they could have a good education,” Baoanan said.
“What happened with Marichu Banaoan was dehumanizing and deplorable,” said Ana Liza Caballes, overall coordinator of Damayan. “We hope that this news will resonate throughout the United States and the Philippines, and hopefully all over the world.”
Damayan has launched the “Justice for Marichu” campaign, in an effort to end trafficking and modern-day slavery for all Filipina domestic workers.
According to their petition, they are demanding that the Arroyo administration and the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs conduct a full investigation of the Baja family on charges of human trafficking, involuntary servitude, racketeering and US wage and hours violations.
The group is also supporting Baoanan’s demand for a public apology from the Bajas for violating her human dignity and subjecting her to involuntary servitude. (www.asianjournal.com)