Season 1, Episode 3: Domestic Slavery and its Emotional Bonds



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You’re listening to Episode 3 of the Trafficking Dispatch, a biweekly podcast that briefs you on human trafficking issues in a brief amount of time. I’m your host, Victoria Erdel. In this episode, we’ll learn more about domestic slavery in order to understand the often complex relationships between slaveholders and slaves.

The last two episodes focused on potential causes and consequences of sex trafficking, but it’s important to remember that this is not the only type of human trafficking. In fact, Polaris Project has identified 25 types of modern slavery, but it can be argued that there even more than this. One of their recognized types is domestic work. The “domestic” in “domestic slavery” doesn’t automatically mean it happens in the slave’s home country, although this is a possibility. “Domestic,” in this case, relates to completing common household duties, like cooking, cleaning, and caretaking.

If this is the case, then doesn’t that make most parents and even children domestic slaves? Not at all! What makes it slavery is the fact that most are deceived or coerced into completing these domestic duties for a family, and are paid very little, if they’re paid at all. Most of the time, they also work unbelievably long hours. Verbal, physical, and emotional abuse are also common. Finally, “invisible shackles”, like the confiscation of their legal documents, or emotional bondage, prevent many domestic slaves from leaving their situation.

Let’s take a closer look at these invisible shackles, more specifically, emotional bondage. It’s tempting to think that if we release a slave from most of their invisible shackles, like giving them their legal papers and permission to leave, then they’ll leave. But they might not leave, because where will they go? “Okay,” we say, “let’s take it a step further and give them a plane or bus ticket back home to their families.” But if they were sold into domestic slavery by a family member, or came from an extremely poor and limited background, we have to ask again: where will they go? What other job will they find? “Okay, fine,” we say, “Let’s give them their legal documents, give them a ticket back home, and find them a fair-paying job. There, now they have no reason to stay! Right?”

Not quite. While providing legal and economic opportunities for freedom is important, it doesn’t necessarily fix an underlying concern: domestic slaves are human, and as humans, they can experience emotional attachment to their slaveholders. While becoming emotionally attached to their abuser may seem like the last thing a slave might do, let’s recall the phenomenon of trauma bonding, which was discussed in the first episode and second episodes.

For more proof of the inhibiting effects emotional bonding can have, let’s look at the article “My Family’s Slave”, written by the late Filipino-American journalist, Alex Tizon. In the article, Alex gives a broad overview of his life. His family moved to America from the Philippines when he was a young child, and in many ways, he had an upbringing typical for an American children. Except for the fact that his family had Lola, their slave.

Lola was given to Alex’s mother as a gift when his mother was just 12 years old. Alex’s grandfather noticed that Lola, like many potential slaves, was poor, uneducated, and with limited options. So, he offered Lola the chance to take care of his motherless child. However, this caretaking job had more duties than a typical nanny. Lola “fed, groomed, dressed” and even took the punishments for Alex’s mother. In many ways, she performed the work of a parent without actually being the parent, and without any pay.

But Lola’s work didn’t end when Alex’s mother grew up. She continued working for the family after Alex and his siblings were born, and even lived with Alex once he had his own family. During these decades of servitude, Lola endured long hours of work, the pressure of raising 5 children that were not her own, verbal and physical abuse by Alex’s parents, and little to no privacy. She didn’t have her own room and she couldn’t leave because she didn’t know how to drive. What’s worse, she wasn’t allowed to return to the Philippines after both of her parents died. By the time she went back for a short visit, she was in her 80s, and most of her family was gone.

But Alex looked back on Lola with fondness. He remembered her constant care, how she was the first person he saw each morning and the last before he went to bed, how she cared for him when he was sick, and kept him fed and clothed. But his parents sensed their closeness, and accused him of “defending [his] Lola” when they got in an argument over how they treated her. It seems that Alex not only felt close to Lola, but in some ways, Lola was close to him in a way that his parents would never be.

What’s even more striking, though, is the fact that Lola was also close in some ways to one of her top abusers, Alex’s mother. Alex recalled times when Lola defended his mother from her husband or comforted her when she was sad. In fact, he said it seemed that, “an afternoon at the coast or just 15 minutes in the kitchen reminiscing about the old days” would make Lola “forget years of torment.”

Lola’s circumstances are best summarized by the following story. When Alex asked her why she stayed, she said “Where will I go?” This is an example of the legal and economic shackles that keep many slaves in their situation. Lola had been living as undocumented immigrant in the States for many years, which prevented her from seeking help or even going back, because of the shame it would inflict on Alex’s family. She also didn’t have enough money to leave and live on her own. Another time, she responded, “Who will cook?” These three words show that Lola was attached to the family, even if she wasn’t treated properly by Alex’s parents, because she likely felt a sense of duty to care for them. Lola even said that Alex’s mother, he and siblings, and his children, made her life worth living because she considered them to be her children. Lola’s responses show how emotional shackles often work together with legal and economic ones to keep many slaves in their current situations. Alex eventually encouraged Lola to relax and spend her days as she pleased, but this didn’t erase the decades of being separated from her country, her family, and her dreams.

But what can be done about this? While laws are often complex and economic opportunities hard to come by, dealing with emotional needs is in many ways even more complicated. The first step is to simply recognize that emotional bondage can play an equally important part in trafficking situations as legal and economic bondage. If we deny this, we’d not only be denying survivors the holistic care that they deserve, but we’d also be denying them their humanity. Next, we can learn to recognize the signs of trafficking, so that we can notify authorities when needed. A link to an article by Polaris Project on the signs of human trafficking will be provided in our shownotes. Finally, we can keep the story of Lola alive. While Lola and Alex have since passed since the article’s publication, their story can and should be carried on to help others realize the complexity surrounding the relationships between slaves and their slaveholders. There may not be one simple solution to this problem, but recognizing the depth of this issue brings us one step closer to resolving it.

Before I go, I wanted to let you all know that I will be attending the Human Trafficking and Social Justice Conference at the University of Toledo on September 22nd. If you are able to attend but haven’t signed up, I encourage you to do so. If you are attending, I’d love to meet you! Please feel free to say hi if you see me, and I look forward to the conference!

This has been the Trafficking Dispatch with Victoria Erdel. You can subscribe to our SoundCloud channel and tune into our next episode which will be released on October 1st, 2017 at 5 pm. Or, if you would like to interact with us before then, you can visit our website at, follow us on our social media accounts – our handles are below – or email us with any questions or suggestions at Thank you for tuning into this episode, and we hope you’ll tune in again to join the fight against human trafficking.

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