83-year-old Filipina celebrates life and freedom for the first time

83-year-old Filipina celebrates life  and freedom for the first time
Fedelina Lugasan, 83, formerly of Northridge, California with Aquilina Soriano Versoza, executive director of Pilipino Workers Center.

As the country
celebrates its independence this 4th of July, freedom takes on a new meaning
for Fedelina Lugasan, a victim of modern-day slavery and human trafficking.

For decades, the 83-year-old Filipina was enslaved and
coerced into a life of domestic servitude without pay or any days off.  Fedelina Lugasan was rescued earlier last year
in Northridge, California, by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the
Pilipino Workers Center (PWC).

Lugasan
was identified as a potential victim of abuse when she collapsed in a hospital
after not being able to rest or eat for days while watching over her employer,
Benedicta Cox.

Under
the suspicion that something was wrong, the hospital alerted law enforcement,
which resulted to the FBI searching Cox’s residence and the eventual rescue of
Lugasan.

As
an organization advocating to eradicate human trafficking, Pilipino Workers
Center (PWC) assisted Lugasan during her rescue and in finding her path to
independence by providing access to medical care, housing, food and legal
support services. She was also introduced to a community of Filipinos who now
call her “Nanay,” which means mother in Tagalog.

After
months of investigation, Cox was put on house arrest, sentenced to probation
for 5 years and ordered to pay $101,119.98 in restitution.

Pilipino
Workers Center also leads a workplace justice campaign that brings abused
workers to justice by filing wage claims and restitution of wages.

With
the assumption that Fedelina has been working round-the-clock from the day of
her arrival in the US, PWC estimates that the total back wages should be a
minimum of $1,625,856.00. This is based on the California minimum wage from the
time she started working for Cox’s family in the United States in 1980, up
until the time of her rescue in 2018, excluding overtime pay.

“Although
we celebrate her freedom from slavery, it is a bittersweet victory knowing that
Nanay Fedelina’s restitution did not even come close to a tenth of the back
wages that she deserved. The results of her case highlights the brokenness of
our judicial system and exposes a greater need for reform in legislation of
anti-trafficking laws and better protection policies for human trafficking
survivors,” said Aquilina Soriano Versoza, executive director of Pilipino
Workers Center.

Lugasan was
born in Leyte, a province in the Philippines.

At
age 16, she was recruited by Cox’s mother, to work for their family as a
live-in domestic worker. With the promise of a better life, Lugasan was brought
to their home in Manila – the Philippines’ capital. She worked by doing all
kinds of household chores and taking care of the children. But she ended up not
getting paid for her services. Though she wanted to leave, she was left with no
money or any other means to go back to her hometown. With her back against the
wall, Lugasan stayed.

At
age 28, Lugasan was brought to the United States to take care of Cox’s sister
who was sick at that time. But she ended up working for the entire family. For
over 30 years, Lugasan served them by cleaning, cooking, gardening, taking care
of children and more, all without any pay and no days off. She lived in a house
with 4 bedrooms and 3 bathrooms but slept on the floor. She did not have a bed.

Lugasan
reports, “One time, when I asked for money, Cox’s mother got mad at me. I told
her I wanted to leave but she said to me”, “Where would you go?” She adds, “Her
family would always tell me, “If you leave the house, we will call the police
and tell them you stole many things.” I was scared.

I
never stole anything. But I also I did not know anyone or have anyone to help
me. I did not want to be put in jail for something I did not do.”

At
some point, Lugasan realized that Cox hid her passport and birth certificate.
When she asked to get them back, Cox violently refused. Without any form of
identification, no money and nowhere else to go, Lugasan experienced even more
abuse and exploitation.

Philippine senator Risa Hontiveros shares a light moment with Filipino Americans inside PWC’s 1940 Sarao Jeepney a.k.a Jeep ng Bayan. Prior to this event, the solon had been to the Unidad Park on Beverly Boulevard, popular Filipino American destination in the historic Filipinotown in Los Angeles.
Photo by Ren Arrieta

For
years, the family continued to deceive her and instill immense fear by
projecting threats of deportation and arrest.

“About
two months after the Northridge earthquake in 1994, Benedicta sold her house
because it was damaged by the earthquake. We moved to another house in
Northridge. During this time, I was also the household help for Benedicta’s
daughter. I cleaned their house, cooked for the whole family, and did laundry
for them. Her family included her 2 kids and husband, as well as mother-in-law
and sister-in-law. I took the bus at 5:30 AM to their house, got there by 6 AM
then went back to the Northridge house late at night. I did this for 18 years,
from when the older child was born until he was 18 years old. I did not get
paid for doing this,” claims Lugasan.

As
the family’s slave, Lugasan was not given the care that she deserved. Even when she was sick, they would force her to work and
even accused her of faking illness. Once, she was pushed and almost fell down
the stairs.

“I
worked and worked even when both my hands and feet were hurting. When it got
really bad, my tears would just roll down my cheeks. I felt so helpless,”
recalled Lugasan.

Lugasan’s
case is not an isolated one. Modern-day slavery happens more often than people
think. Lugasan lived in a typical residential home in Los Angeles and in the
San Fernando Valley. She did normal day-to-day activities like riding the bus,
going grocery shopping, picking up the kids from school.

And
yet, it took 38 years before someone identified her as a possible victim of
abuse. This is why she wants her story to be told There
are many other victims of human trafficking who need a means to escape. There
are many others who need to know that there are communities and organizations who
can provide assistance for those experiencing abuse and exploitation as Lugasan
did.

This
4th of July, Lugasan celebrates her 83rd birthday and her freedom with her a
party attended by caring and supportive community members who has embraced and
welcomed her into their lives as their “Nanay.” Among her special
guests were Consul General Adelio Cruz and the Vice Consul General Dyan
Pastrana of the Philippine Consulate General Los Angeles and PWC executive director
Aquilina Soriano Versoza.

Lugasan is now in high spirits and enjoying her life. Through the help of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Philippine Consulate General Los Angeles California, and the Pilipino Workers Center, she is slowly navigating her way through independence.

Lugasan states, “I am now happy and free. No longer held captive and being abused. I’m sending out a message to workers who may be in a situation of exploitation, seek help, fight back and don’t let people mistreat and abuse you.”

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