Domestic workers

Domestic workers trapped in modern slavery

This article originally appeared on VICE France.

Ines was sitting on the sofa in front of me, her eyes scanning the room, her hands caressing her pregnant belly. “He’s a boy,” she said when I asked her. A smile crept onto her face as she imagined meeting her baby in a few months.

But his life has not always been so rosy. Inès, who did not want to share her full name for security reasons, comes from a French-speaking African country where she worked as a nail technician. “I wanted to go back to school and France seemed like the perfect option,” she said. His boss knows his ambitions and offers him to go and live with his sister near Paris.

In the summer of 2016, when she was 23, Inès left for France dreaming of her new life. But the situation turned out to be far from what she had expected. Her boss’s sister lived in a dilapidated building, crammed into a small apartment with her partner, four children and a baby. “She told me that she was going back to work after her maternity leave and that I had to take care of the children,” says Inès. “I said, ‘No problem, aunt.’ I thought it made sense to give something back.

The arrangement turned out to be a trap. Inès had to take care of all the household chores and she was forbidden to leave the apartment, except for school shopping. The older children and their mother also often vented their frustrations on her, verbally and physically abusing her. “I worked all day, I could never rest,” she said. The only thing she could do to protect herself was to obey orders as best she could.

Inès’ work routine was pretty much 24 hours a day. At night, she had to take care of the newborn baby whenever he cried. Then she would wake up at 4 a.m. to clean the whole apartment, “even though it was already clean,” she said.. After that, it was time to prepare breakfast before the rest of the family woke up. She took the children to school, then cooked lunch and dinner according to a meal list provided by the woman of the house. It was hard and repetitive work: cleaning, cooking, ironing, preparing baby bottles, doing the laundry. Each day bled into the next.

Little by little, Inès realized that she had been lied to: she would never have the chance to study or even look for a job outside the home. A few days after her arrival, she realized that she could not even eat at the same time as the family. Once she was caught eating in the kitchen after serving the meal and was told she was not allowed to eat. she should eat the leftovers after everyone is done. Often, she contented herself with pieces of rice and leftover chicken on the children’s plates. She quickly lost weight and was often dizzy.

One afternoon, about four months ago, Inès was taking down the rubbish in the common garbage cans of the building when she passed out in the elevator. The caretaker of the building found her and realized the seriousness of her situation. He offered to help feed her and gave her money to seek legal advice from a local NGO. Carrying the family’s baby in her arms, Inès eventually sought help and was redirected to the Committee Against Modern Slavery (Committee Against Modern Slavery).

To thwart suspicion, the Committee Against Modern Slavery met her at a local library. They felt it was urgent to get her out of her situation. “One day, when the older brother [of the family] was home, I left the baby in the crib, pretended to pick up the trash and ran away,” she said. The family did not let her go without protesting. A few hours later, her “aunt” started calling her constantly. “In her voice messages, she told me that I didn’t know Paris, that I was going to be raped or assaulted,” she recalls.

The NGO helped Inès to rebuild her life. She was given free accommodation for several months and was helped to find a job. In the meantime, she met someone and fell in love. They decided to start a family. Today, she is pregnant with her second child and wants to forget her past which still gnaws at her. Although she could report her captors to the authorities, she chose not to. “Even five years later, it’s still hard to talk about it,” she said. “I still cry when I think about it. I’m afraid to push her around. She’s violent, that’s what worries me.

The case of Inès is worrying, but not isolated. To be forced to work may seem like a practice of years past, but according to the Global Slavery Indexapproximately 129,000 people were in this situation in France in 2016. Although this number is shocking, the figures for some other European countries are even worse, with an estimate 145,000 people living in conditions of modern slavery in Italy, 167,000 in Germany and around 136,000 UK.

The International Labor Organization defines forced labor – roughly another term for slavery – as work done involuntarily under the threat of physical, psychological or economic duress, such as when a person is forced to work to repay a debt. Human trafficking is a related term that refers to the recruitment of migrants by force, fraud or deception for the purpose of exploiting their labour.

Often when we think of human trafficking, we tend to imagine people being coerced into working in the sex industry, but that’s only a small part of the problem. Construction sites, domestic work, agriculture, care for the elderly – many sectors seem to offer opportunities to unsuspecting migrants who are then defrauded and brutalized behind closed doors.

Their passports are often confiscated upon arrival. They are placed under close surveillance and forced to live in inhumane conditions, often without beds and with limited access to food and water. Many are forced to live there and work all the time, especially if they do housework for a family.

Inès initially hesitated to tell her story. She had never spoken with a journalist before and she asked Zita Cabais Obra, another formerly trafficked domestic worker, to join her for the interview. Cabais-Obra is 59 years old and comes from the Philippines. At the age of 32, she left her home for Paris, helped by an agency which asked her for €2,000 to organize her trip and find her a job as a cleaning lady.

“I was raising the children of a couple. The wife was a banker and the husband was a professor of political science at Paris Dauphine University,” she said. The couple immediately confiscated his passport upon arrival and prohibited him from using a phone and talking to neighbours. They refused to submit an application for regular residency on her behalf, and when she inquired about it, a chair was thrown at her in response.

Eventually, Cabais-Obra found the strength to flee and denounce his exploiters. Having experienced this nightmare herself, she joined the Committee Against Modern Slavery to help others through these difficult times. “I no longer feel like a victim, but like a fighter,” she said. “My mission is to save others. I often think that’s why I went through all that.

In 2021, the group supported 222 people who had been forced to work, 71 percent of whom were women. Sometimes it is the people themselves who seek help, but doctors, neighbors or strangers also often report cases. “Recently, a school contacted us because a young girl came to pick up the children without a coat in the middle of winter,” says the director of the committee, Mona Chamass-Saunier. “It’s not just rich families. The poor also exploit the poor,” added Sylvie d’Oy, the organisation’s president.

Each week, the NGO examines each case and decides how to proceed. They often provide formerly exploited people with legal support to bring their exploiters to justice – it can take years for the trial to start, but human trafficking cases regularly result in convictions. In France, the offense can lead to a seven-year prison sentence and a €150,000 fine. In the UK it can carry up to 18 years old. But for many, the hardest part comes later, when the formerly exploited have to heal their wounds and find their place in society.

Photos of children and families hang proudly on one of the walls of the NGO’s office as proof that getting out of modern slavery is possible. “People have amazing trips,” d’Oy said. “A few years ago we came across the profile of a person we had helped Release [a French newspaper]. She is now the manager of their canteen. We are so proud of how she pulled it off. The woman – Ismah Susilawati, now 55, from Indonesia – was held captive by a family of Omani diplomats in Paris for two years, before escaping with the help of a neighbour.

Inès does not know what the future holds for her. For the past few months, she has been working as an interpreter for the organization, translating stories of people who have had similar experiences to her. After the arrival of her baby, she hopes to find another job where she can also help people. “I want to help make this stop,” she said, her voice more determined than at the start of our interview.