More than three years ago, the Philippine Embassy in Malaysia referred two human trafficking survivors to the Blas F. Ople Policy Center for assistance. Their names were Marilou Bagsit and Marivic Capistrano, both residents of Lipa City, Batangas province. They were married and with young kids, and the meager state of family finances prodded them to accept an offer of quick deployment to Malaysia as domestic workers. They suffered greatly at the hands of Singaporean recruiter Beng Hua Lim aka “Alfred Lim”.
“Lim” slapped Marivic 20 times when she was returned by her employer to his townhouse. He also slapped Marilou several times until her knees wobbled and she fell to the floor. Nearly all the Filipino women recruited by his agency suffered physical and verbal abuse from the Singaporean. His Malaysian wife, Shwen Lim, did not lift a finger to help the abused women. Her Filipina “majordoma”, whose name I could no longer recall, was just as indifferent until her male boss turned against her.
What happened to Marivic and Marilou can be considered a textbook case on the trafficking in persons as defined by the United Nations:
“Trafficking in Persons is defined as the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation.”
The conviction of “Alfred Lim” is important because it shows that this universal definition and the laws that go with it, either in the Philippines or in Malaysia where they passed an anti-trafficking law in 2003, are not without value. It is important because it gives hope to victims like Marilou and Marivic, and so many other silent victims of “Alfred Lim” that justice can be possible, despite distance, inspite of the influence and wealth of their foreign recruiters and/or employers. It is also important because of lessons to be gleaned on how collaboration between and among the trafficked women, the DoJ, the DFA through the Philippine Embassy, DoLE and its attached agencies like TESDA, the Bureau of Immigration and a civil society group like the Ople Center can lead to an empowered alliance against foreign human traffickers.
It is not easy to pin down a human trafficker.
For a human trafficking case to legally prosper, three main elements must be established:
The Act (What is done)
Recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons
The Means (How it is done)
Threat or use of force, coercion, abduction, fraud, deception, abuse of power or vulnerability, or giving payments or benefits to a person in control of the victim
The Purpose (Why it is done)
For the purpose of exploitation, which includes exploiting the prostitution of others, sexual exploitation, forced labour, slavery or similar practices and the removal of organs.
Specifically, in this particular case, Marivic Capistrano and Marilou Bagsit were offered jobs as domestic workers in Kuala Lumpur with the promise that they will work for kind employers and that if they do not like their employers, they would be transferred to better ones. They are victims of illegal recruitment by individuals not authorized by the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration. The two women joined a group of other recruits who were made to ride in a van headed for Clark, Pampanga. At a parking lot near a supermarket, their local recruiter introduced them to an immigration officer stationed at the Diosdado Macapagal International Airport who escorted them through the immigration counters. The women were made to wear white t-shirts and their passports were marked with a letter “A” to differentiate them from other passengers thus making it easier for the conniving immigration agents to identify them.
Upon arriving in KL, the two women noticed that their group was divided into two – the pretty and younger recruits were loaded in a separate vehicle, never to be seen again. It was later discovered that these women were sent to work as prostitutes. Marivic and Marilou along with a few others were brought to the townhouse of Beng Huat Lim aka “Alfred Lim”. Upon arrival, they were made to strip naked for a body search to make sure that they were not hiding any prized possessions anywhere. Cellphones, passports, money and jewelry were confiscated. They were not allowed to leave or make phone calls. Clearly, fraud, deception, and even coercion were applied on the hapless, vulnerable workers.
Soon enough, Malaysian employers came to choose their household workers from among the new recruits. Because the employers already paid in advance to “Lim”, the women were not able to collect any salaries despite long oppressive hours of work, infrequent and inadequate meals, and without a single day off for rest and recreation. This constitutes forced labor trafficking, a form of exploitation akin to modern-day slavery.
Marilou’s every move at her employer’s house was monitored through a CCTV camera. A list of food items was posted on the refrigerator door to make sure that the Filipina maid did not eat food meant for the family nor drink milk or juice from the cartons. One day, due to fatigue and lack of food, Marilou fainted while cleaning the aircondition unit. Her employer brought her to the hospital. When the doctor said that their helper needed to rest for three consecutive days, the employer decided to just bring Marilou back to Lim’s agency. Enraged, Lim slapped Marilou repeatedly, until her dentures flew, and her knees gave way. She crawled to where her dentures fell, and slowly stood up – only to be knocked down again by her recruiter.
Marivic suffered the same fate when her employer decided to return her to “Alfred Lim” for fear of violating immigration laws. Marivic’s work visa indicated that she was to work in Malaysia as a domestic worker. Her employer owns a massage parlor. This was her second employer. The first one was a Malaysian family with small children including an infant. Marivic was unable to cope with the demands of looking after the infant and cleaning house. Seeing Marivic once again at his doorsteps, made Lim blew his top. He slapped her at least 20 times. He demanded that Marivic give up the tips she earned from working in the massage parlor. She was ordered to take off her clothes so that his housekeeper can check for hidden Malaysian ringgits.
Marilou and Marivic decided to escape after getting word that they would be sent to work as prostitutes. Waiting until everyone was asleep, the two managed to unlock the door, and started to run without looking back until they saw a taxicab that was willing to bring them to the Philippine Embassy.
Once in Manila, the Ople Center took both women under its care – bringing their case to the attention of the Department of Justice through the office of Undersecretary Ric Blancaflor. Their local recruiter, a woman named Edelsa Romero, was arrested and charged before the regional trial court of Batangas. With help from the DoJ and TESDA, Marivic and Marilou were given tricycles for their underemployed husbands to earn from while the two women were taught basic welding skills by TESDA. In July 2009, this writer as head of the Ople Center together with Fort Jose, our executive director, and DOJ Prosecutors Severino Gana and Deana Perez accompanied Marivic and Marilou to the first court hearing. “Lim” was present, and looked smug throughout the brief encounter.
Initially, the case filed against Alfred Lim in Malaysia involved violations of immigration laws. Subsequently, and upon representations made by Prosecutors Gana and Perez to their Malaysian counterparts, this case was withdrawn by the Malaysian deputy prosecutor in favor of violations under the anti-trafficking act which carried a heavier penalty.
Last Friday, the Sessions Court in Malaysia convicted Beng Hua Lim for two counts of human trafficking and sentenced to six years imprisonment. We received initial information (subject to confirmation) that bail was set at roughly around Php700,000 but with a condition that Lim would have to surrender his passport to the Malaysian authorities. His lawyer said they will appeal the case to a higher court.
Meanwhile, Marivic Capistrano and Marilou Bagsit have emerged triumphant in a case that spanned three years. Because of them, the women whom “Lim” had slapped, cursed, exploited, and oppressed over the years are set free from the heavy yolk of the past. More importantly, “Lim” shall never be allowed to lay a hand on any Filipina, at least not any time soon.