The Red Flags of Labor Trafficking: A Survivor’s Story of Escaping the United States

By Send Relief Staff

*Content warning: this article contains accounts of abuse and trafficking. Reader discretion is advised.*

Camila* was always looking for professional development opportunities. From health and wellness businesses to translation services, she was determined to use her skills to improve her circumstances.

Especially after the pandemic obstructed many chances for Camila to obtain consistent work in her country, she was elated to discover that an American Instagram influencer, Bette*, was offering free life coaching sessions to international workers looking for mentorship in both their careers and personal lives.

After several online meetings with her new life coach, Camila was asked several times if she had a passport or visa.

In hindsight, she says this as the first red flag.

When Camila asked Bette why, she immediately deflected, saying, “As your friend and mentor, I worry about you. If an emergency happens in your country, you need to be able to leave.” Satisfied with this answer, Camila continued the relationship, attending Zoom meetings regularly and working to improve her financial situation.

After several weeks, Bette approached Camila with a personalized plan: she told Camila her Christian household was toxic and that she needed to move out of her family’s space and into her own to work on transcriptions and secretarial tasks, earning her own keep and building a professional portfolio.

While Western cultures encourage teenagers to move out of the family home upon graduating high school, in many other cultures, it is common for adult children to remain in the family home until marriage. In light of this, Bette’s suggestion felt extreme, but Camila acquiesced—their relationship was special, and Bette told her constantly that she saw a lot of potential in her future.

A few more weeks of facilitating meetings and translating documents passed before Bette made an unexpected offer: she would pay for Camila to come to the United States to continue working for her in person, with no travel costs, rent, or grocery money required as long as Camila was willing to be her executive assistant. Bette assured her that visas would not be an issue and that this friendship was an answer to her prayers.

Red flag number two: if a situation seems too good to be true, it often is.

After fighting jet lag and adjusting to life in her new American home, Camila began to take on more and more responsibilities. It started small at first, with Bette’s requests for her to watch her daughter while she took a nap, make dinner if she had to work late and do laundry if she didn’t get around to it that week.

Camila commented on this time period, “I was the maid and the cook. I was supposed to figure out what she wanted and needed before she said it, otherwise she would get mad and tell me I wasn’t doing my job—that I wasn’t earning my place—since she wasn’t charging me for rent or groceries.” This started with Bette telling her, “We are a team, and this is what teamwork means. I’ll focus on my job, and you focus on the house. I make money there, and you save me money here.”

Red flag number three: manipulation.

At this point, Camila still did not see herself as a victim of labor trafficking. In her mind, she was helping her friend.

Sure, things were not turning out the way she’d envisioned them, but that was her fault, right? She didn’t know about American culture. She didn’t know Bette had fired her maid the same week Camila arrived. She didn’t know she would be performing the duties of four full-time jobs while being manipulated into believing this was what mentorship was. And she was apart from her family in a new country with no friends—except one—so she stayed.

Then, Camila was told not to share any of the happenings inside the house on pain of death.

Red flag number four: “don’t talk about it.”

“After the threats began, she told me what happens in the house stays in the house,” Camila shared. “So, if I needed to cry, cry on her shoulder. If I needed to talk about a problem, she would comfort me, but I shouldn’t talk to anybody else or tell them where I’m from. Then, she began pointing out my weak points—calling me stupid or worthless—and lying about our relationship, telling people I was her sister even though we look nothing alike. She told me she was training me to keep secrets and that I should be the first one to wake up and the last one to go to sleep. There’s no free time here—this is America. You should work hard to survive, so when I wasn’t sleeping, I was working.”

Red flag number five: isolation.

The relationship Bette had created in her head of friendship, mentorship and teamwork was fading. They began to get in more and more fights.

One day, when Bette slept through a college course, she immediately blamed Camila for not waking her up, screamed a slew of curse words and left the house in a fury.

When they spoke again, Bette told Camila she had severe mental problems and that she was considering admitting her to a psychiatric hospital against her will. When Camila pressed her as to why, Bette accused her of opening spiritual doors to demonic possession. She then asked Camila to record a video of herself admitting to this and confessing to being a bad employee and friend, as well as threatening her with stalking and recording her conversations around the house.

Red flag number six: gaslighting.

This continued for weeks.

Bette accused Camila of suicidal ideation, deleted their entire message history and threatened to murder Camila if any harm came to her daughter while she was away.

At every juncture, if she brought up the authorities or law enforcement, Bette would threaten her with the fact that she was friends with many people in positions of power: “She told me if I did anything against her, she would destroy my life, and I would never be able to step foot in America again. Three times, she told me she would hide my body, and nobody would find me.”

Red flag number seven: threats to physical safety.

Whether this was true or not, Camila was terrified. She knew that this forced domestic servitude was a crime, but she also knew the criminal justice system did not always succeed.

Finally at her breaking point, Camila decided to share some small details of the ongoing abuse with her family.

Thankfully, one family member had attended a presentation delivered by Send Relief’s Executive Director of the New Orleans ministry center, Kay Bennett, in which she spoke about the warning signs of human trafficking. This family member recognized the signs in her story and was able to tell Camila that what she was experiencing was labor trafficking. While Camila was resistant to the label at first, her pastor’s wife affirmed that experience as well, finally granting her the courage to tell Bette she was leaving.

“She said I had destroyed our friendship and that she was praying I would stay but, now, she would send me a bill for the rent and food I hadn’t paid for,” Camila stated. When this tactic didn’t work, Bette went into hysterics.

As the manipulation continued while Camila arranged her travel accommodations, Kay Bennett scheduled a call with her in which they were able to plan how to get Camila safely home to her family and open a court case against Bette.

“It was hard for me to see myself as a victim because she was someone I trusted, but I finally made the connection—she is a trafficker,” Camila shared. “And she has probably done this to other international ‘friends.’ Sometimes we run away from the truth because it hurts, but leaving abusive situations both mentally and physically is how you break that connection. If I were being sex trafficked, I would have seen it, but this was a ‘business’ and a ‘relationship’ so I didn’t even see it happening.”

Exploitation takes a variety of forms, all abusive and devaluing of humanity. If you would like to learn more about human trafficking and its signs, download our free educational guide or watch our webinar.

*Names changed for security.

Published January 12, 2023

Send Relief Staff