She was terrified to make the phone call.
A slave to the diplomat who brought her to the United States from the Philippines, all Amalia knew of the country was 24-hour video surveillance, verbal abuse and long hours scrubbing toilets behind locked doors. Could she trust the people on the other end of the line? Her English was broken. Would they understand her plea for help?
But the phone number was all she had; she was painfully aware of that. She mustered courage and dialed.
In her Washington D.C. office, Vanessa Chauhan was waiting by the phone.
"National Human Trafficking Resource Center," she said. Her voice was friendly, comforting. "How may I help you?"
That call was the start of a months-long relationship that would support the Filipino woman through the process of escaping modern-day slavery and building a new life for herself.
A hotline may seem an insignificant weapon in the fight against a crime that oppresses an estimated 150,000 people in the United States. But Chauhan and her colleagues, who give up weekends, holidays and sometimes a full night's rest to make sure no call for help goes unheard, do more than just answer phones. The National Human Trafficking Resource Center, which is run by the nonprofit Polaris Project, coordinates anti-slavery efforts all over the United States, working with more than 3,300 organizations to find victims and connect them with the services they need. With support from a growing number of state legislators and law enforcement leaders, the hotline has drastically expanded its reach in recent years. Since 2008, when Polaris Project took over responsibility for the hotline, call volume has grown by more than 300 percent. In less than 5 years, the organization has helped more than 5,600 people escape slavery.
"Everybody in the anti-trafficking field is very networked," said Ronna Bright, manager of the Central Valley Against Human Trafficking program in Fresno, Calif. "The hotline is like the hub of the wheel. They're at the center of everything."
When Amalia, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, took a job as a housekeeper in the United States, she thought she was signing up for a 40-hour-a-week gig. Her employer, a high-ranking Taiwanese diplomat posted in Kansas City, Mo., agreed to pay her $1,240 a month. But things turned upside down almost as soon as she arrived on U.S. soil. Hsien-Hsien "Jacqueline" Lui, Director General of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office, confiscated Amalia's travel documents and threatened to have her arrested if she "acted out," according to an affidavit filed by the United States Attorney for the Western District of Missouri. Amalia was forced to work 16-18 hours a day, received no time off for weekends or holidays and was only paid $450 a month. She was kept under video surveillance and was not allowed to leave the premises without supervision.
The hotline was always in the back of her mind. Before she left the Philippines, U.S. consulate staff gave Amalie a red, white and blue pamphlet titled: "Know Your Rights."
"If your rights are violated," the text instructed, "call this toll-free number."
The "Know Your Rights" pamphlet is part of a federal push to promote awareness about and assist in identifying victims of modern-day slavery, which is officially called human trafficking. States have also taken steps in recent years to promote awareness about the issue. In the past five years, nine states have passed laws encouraging or requiring establishments like bars, truck stops, restaurants or hotels to post hotline information. Twelve more are considering legislation.
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