Manila, Philippines – SABAH I am here in the land that we claim as our own by virtue of history. Backward, it’s not. Hectares of palm oil plantations dot the landscape hiding from main roads the coarse brown migrant hands that grow the trees, harvest its fruits. In Kota Kinabalu, one finds hotels with sprawling 36-hole golf courses, shopping malls gushing with name brands, and seafood restaurants with lobsters, crabs and tilapia fish in glass tanks for the picking. From Kota Kinabalu where we stayed for two nights to the seaport of Lahad Datu, the road trip took at least 10 hours. Lahad Datu is a small coastal town three hours away from the more progressive Sandakan. This is where a lot of our plantation workers end up, many of them unschooled and jobless. There are small shops, a KFC outlet, and a mall named “Giant“ clear signs of progress.
However, this is not a sightseeing tour. I came to educate myself on the “ins and outs“ of human trafficking of Filipinos via the infamous Mindanao backdoor. My mentors were no less than the workers themselves and a few community leaders whose names I won’t divulge for their own safety.
On my first night, I met “Sally“. Her parents think she’s employed as a domestic worker in Malaysia. “Sally“ admits to being a call girl to be had per night for RM 350 or the equivalent of P4,900 (1 Malaysian Ringgit is equal to more or less P14). She came to Sabah via the backdoor, meaning aboard a vessel from Tawi-Tawi to the coast of Sempporno in Sabah. A “friend“ sent her P15,000 to make the trip.
I asked her what her last job was in the Philippines. She replied that she previously worked as a production assistant for a local media man who paid her P800 a week as salary. Without a college degree, “Sally“ was enticed to leave for Sabah by friends who tried their luck and are now married to foreigners. She has four siblings, the youngest of whom is only three years old. Her parents are of humble means, with her mom bringing in the money as a domestic worker in the province.
“Sally“ recounted that hours after landing in Sempporna, she moved to Tawau where she worked for five months for a pimp named “Auntie“. Her “Auntie“ would get the bulk of her customer earnings, leaving her with RM190 out of every RM 350 per customer. Unable to stand “Auntie’s“ meddlesome ways, “Sally“ decided to escape from Tawau. Today, she works the hotel circuit.
“Aren’t you afraid of running into a cruel customer?“ I asked her. “He will take care of me,“ the young woman replied, pointing her index finger up. She then pulled a blue rosary from her bag and lifted it with such tenderness. “Before I enter the hotel room to face a customer, I pray to God to keep me safe,“ she added, with a voice so soft like a raincloud trying hard not to burst from the full weight of unshed tears.
“Sally“ refused to share the finer details about her journey, no longer wishing to remember and not knowing exactly how it would end. Her words were stilted and controlled whenever I raised the matter of recruitment and deployment. She was in it for the money, she declared, while tucking her blue rosary in the deep recesses of her purse.
More forthcoming was “Jennifer“, a Filipina trafficked from Luzon to Sabah via Tawi-Tawi. Her recruiter promised her a job as a waitress, earning tips and a monthly salary of at least P30,000. The single mother of two children never thought she’d end up a bar girl in Kota Kinabalu. “They brought us in via Tawi-Tawi aboard a small passenger vessel. I already knew that something was wrong. Why did we have to travel by plane from Zamboanga City to TawiTawi just to board that passenger boat to Malaysia? I knew that it was wrong but we were being monitored every step of the way via mobile phone,“ she explained.
At one point in her journey, she called her mother to say that something was amiss but by that time, it was too late to go back.
Upon arriving at the club, she was warned not to escape because they would track her down. She also learned that she has incurred a debt of 3,000 ringgits (P42,000) which she must pay for by going out with customers.
“Please help me, I want to go home,“ she pleaded. She wrote down in my little notebook the mobile phone number of her parents. I promised to visit her family and bring toys to her little kids. Unlike her other companions on that passenger boat, “Jennifer“ refused the advances of her male customers. When the Sabah police went to the club to investigate her claims of sex trafficking, the women refused to cooperate, some out of fear, others out of misguided loyalty. The entire case now hinges on “Jennifer“ and her testimony.
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