During a recent overcast morning in L.A.’s Koreatown, about 250 men, women and children from all walks of life — including students, families, business professionals and Catholic religious sisters — marched along a two-mile stretch of Wilshire Boulevard in the name of freedom from human trafficking. One of the people on hand for this year’s “Walk 4 Freedom” — presented by the L.A. Metro Taskforce on Human Trafficking, the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking (CAST) and Southern California Partners for Global Justice — knows the reality of human trafficking all too well. With her positive demeanor, Udaya Kanthi Salgadu, 37, hardly seems like a survivor of human trafficking and indentured servitude.
Yet, as she explained during an interview with The Tidings, a victim of trafficking can be anyone — man or woman, forced to labor in restaurants, beauty salons, as domestic workers, under a myriad of different circumstances, yet always with little to no freedom, with little to no pay, and enslaved by threats (or worse ) to their families, for weeks, months or even years.
And it’s happening in our own backyards, in Los Angeles and elsewhere across the United States, Salgadu said.
Kanthi’s story of survival began in 1995.
Growing up in the city of Kurunegala in Sri Lanka, Salgadu, her sister and parents had little in the way of luxuries. But they never went without basic necessities, thanks to her hard-working father, a builder who earned enough for daily living expenses and medical costs for her mother, who had life-long health issues.
Salgadu hoped to someday attend college, a dream inspired by her father’s words.
“He always said, ‘If you have a house or money, people can take those away from you. But if you have a good education, nobody can ever take [that] away from you,’” she recalled with a quiver in her voice.
In October 1995, that dream was put on hold when her father fell ill. With two ailing parents and zero income, the responsibility fell on Salgadu to support her family. By then her sister had left home and married.
No work experience left Salgadu few options, so she turned to a nearby “employment agency,” which promised to set her up as a nanny in Singapore. Feeling she had no other choice, and against her parents’ wishes, she accepted.
“My parents were sick and suffering, and I wanted to help,” said Salgadu. “[Back then] I had no idea about human trafficking. I never heard of anything like that.”
In April of 1996, she left for Singapore with only her passport, a change of clothes and her most prized possession: a small album containing photos of her family. Upon arriving, she began her job as an in-home domestic worker for a wealthy, middle-aged couple, who lived in a large eight-bedroom, eight-bathroom house with their adult son, his wife and their two young children.
Salgadu worked tirelessly from dawn until 10 p.m. every single day — cleaning every corner of the home, washing the vehicles, hand laundering clothing,
cooking every family meal and tending to the children. One month into her employment she was distressed to learn that she wouldn’t receive the salary she had been promised, but instead would only get paid about U.S. $40 per month, with the rest of her salary purportedly being paid to the employment agency for a period of six months as a fee for finding her the job.
She sent home every cent. Despite the deception, she continued working.
“It was O.K. for me because I just wanted to help my parents,” she recalled.
During the little free time she was allowed — usually a few hours about one Sunday per month — Salgadu would go to the local Buddhist temple to pray for her father to get better and for time to pass quickly so that she could return home to her family. Unfortunately, things would get far worse.
In the spring of 1998, Salgadu’s employer announced that she and her husband would be traveling to the U.S. to visit their daughter and they expected her to travel with them. She called the employment agency for help.
“They said [they] couldn’t do anything because the family had paid a lot of money for me; they basically bought me,” she said. When they threatened to report her to the authorities in Singapore and cancel her working permit, she relented.
Salgadu’s employers took her to their daughter’s home, where she lived with her husband and children, for a “visit.” Her employers left for a “short trip” to Canada, with the promise of returning for her a few weeks later. Salgadu began working in the daughter’s home as she had in Singapore. But her employers never returned. She did everything for the new family, sometimes from 4:30 a.m. until almost midnight. She stopped receiving any pay whatsoever, with the promise that she would eventually receive $150 per month for the months she worked, but not until it was time to return to Sri Lanka.
Salgadu was instructed to never open the door or attempt to go outside, and heard exaggerated tales about the dangers lurking in the city. They hid her passport, her work permit and the small, modest pieces of jewelry she had arrived with.
At night, she was locked in her room, where she was forced to sleep on the hardwood floor with only one pillow and two blankets. At night she would cry, pray and re-read letters from her mother — the only kindness her captors ever allowed was regular correspondence with her family, so long as Salgadu didn’t attempt to disclose her true experiences in the letters they mailed for her.
“Sometimes I would beg to be allowed to return home, and she would get very upset whenever I asked about it,” Kanthi said. “She would threaten me, threaten my family in Sri Lanka, and she would throw and break things, whatever was around the house. … She would tell me, ‘You have nothing, you have no power. I have all the power.’ She tried to make me feel so worthless, like I could never do anything.”
One day, the woman told her she would never go home, a teary Salgadu recalled.
But, thanks to her “guardian angel,” she was set free. Acting on a tip from a concerned neighbor, U.S. immigration officials rescued Salgadu on May 12, 2000. After living in forced servitude for more than two years in the U.S., and for two more years in Singapore, her ordeal was finally over.
“When immigration arrived, I felt like this was something that God had sent me — God had answered my prayers,” she said. “When I was little my parents would always tell me, ‘Always do good unto other people and someday that goodness will be returned.’ And they were right.”
Speaking about her “angel,” Salgadu once again gets a bit emotional.
“I have never met [the person]…but every day I say thank you to God for sending me that angel,” she said. “That small phone call changed my life.”
Today, Salgadu resides in Los Angeles — the land of her imprisonment became her second home and a place of hope, she says. She now has her own apartment, a large circle of friends, works as a certified nursing assistant and volunteers for CAST, mentoring fellow survivors and raising awareness about human trafficking.
“When I mentor anybody, I tell them nobody can take away what you have, your self-worth,” she said. “I knew I didn’t have money, but I knew, ‘I do have family, I do have faith, I do have God.’ She could never take those things away from me.”