SANTO TOMAS, Philippines – After she and her sister escaped trafficking, Abegail Compuesto became an activist to help raise awareness among migrant women about labour exploitation and trafficking in the Philippines.

In the lead up to World Day against Trafficking in Persons on 30 July, Ms. Compuesto shares her story.

“My journey started when a woman in my village connected me and several other women to a ‘recruitment agency’ offering waitressing jobs in Malaysia. We were brought to Manila, to ‘process our paperwork’. Some of the women were actually minors and when some of us didn't have money for the processing fees, the recruitment agency said that they would cover all of the expenses and that they would be deducted from our salaries when we started to work in Malaysia. My younger sister was with me and she was only 17.

"They noticed that I was scared and that I knew what was happening. They threatened us with guns. We were terrified" - Abegail Compuesto, trafficking activist

When it came time to leave, we were told that we couldn’t fly due to bad weather and we boarded a boat instead. I felt a bit suspicious but since there were 17 of us, I ignored the feeling and thought it was probably okay. But I should have trusted my feeling.

We arrived in Mindanao and were made to stay in a house to receive job training before going to Malaysia. But instead of training us to cook and wait tables, they made us drink alcohol and smoke cigarettes. Then some of the women were taken away to do video calls with men.

Throughout this time, I made a lot of excuses to the ‘recruiters’ for why I didn’t want to do this because I was getting scared.

When it was time to go to Malaysia, the ‘recruiters’ confiscated our phones and told us what to say and how to act when going through immigration. They noticed that I was scared and that I knew what was happening and they threatened us with guns. We were terrified.

At immigration, my sister and another young girl were taken aside by someone who appeared to be an NGO worker who suspected that they were being trafficked. Two police officers came and took them away, but I had already passed through immigration and was forced onto a boat with the other women.

"Any time I hear that women migrant workers have faced illegal recruitment, trafficking or abuse, I help them" - Ms. Compuesto

I couldn’t stop crying. I was really scared, and I was worried about my sister. Then I noticed that the boat was turning around. When we got back to the port, I heard someone calling my name on the ship’s PA system. There were uniformed men with guns. They brought me to a room and I saw my sister – she had told them about me. We cried and cried. The uniformed men asked for the names of the other women but unfortunately, I didn't know their full names so we weren’t able to help them. [After my name was called, the recruiter forced them to hide in the bathroom until the coast guard had finished searching the ship].

In the end, only five of us made it back. Then we were met by someone from an NGO that helps migrant women and trafficked persons. They brought our families to where we were and helped us to get home. Members of the organization also helped us to recover from our trauma, and now I’m very active in the same organization. I attend trainings and help other migrant women to be aware of illegal recruitment and how to claim their rights.

I began attending a livelihoods training given by the NGO too, and with a small amount of capital now I have my own small business and an income for myself! Every time there is a training, I go, and any time I hear that women migrant workers have faced illegal recruitment, trafficking or abuse, I help them.

Many of the agencies offering work overseas are just fronts for human trafficking. If you have any suspicions about a recruitment agency, do your research to find out if they are legitimate.”

Abegail Compuesto is a member of Batis AWARE Women’s Organization, one of many organizations in the Philippines that works with Safe and Fair Programme to advance the rights of women migrant workers in the ASEAN region and promote information about safe and fair migration and access to essential services. Safe and Fair is part of the Spotlight Initiative to eliminate violence against women and girls, a global, multi-year partnership between the European Union and the United Nations.

Story by Gihan Hassanein/UN Women. Photo by Mohammad Rakibul Hasan/UN Women