Trick Mirror: A Reflection on Mass-Deception

A case study in access journalism and also a reflection on migrant labor

Most of you have probably never heard of Jia Tolentino (which is perhaps a good thing). She is a staff writer for the New Yorker. She wrote a book called Trick Mirror: A Reflection on Self-Deception. In the book, she berated capitalism for forcing people to commodify the self. A few months ago, a Reddit forum uncovered a juicy detail about her parents: They were charged with human trafficking. Instead of engaging in self-deception, she tried to turn the mirror onto us for mass deception where she penned this blog post. 

Many of us spawn from evil. If there are uncomfortable truths about our parents and grandparents, it is best to be honest about it. For example, author Silvia Foti handled the revelation that her grandfather was a Nazi with honesty and grace

Of course, no one is responsible for the sins of their parents; if she had just stated that, it wouldn't have been an issue. It would be honest on its own. However, Jia decided to take a different approach. She claimed, "The vibe was that this was some sort of wild, ironic gotcha," while proceeding to whitewash the deeds of her parents and grandparents.    

The replies to the post showed us precisely what is wrong with America's journalists. A large number of journalists bought her story, uncritically, without a simple google search. If these journalists let Jia slide on such a blatant lie, we can't help but wonder when and if they would offer any pushback from those in power. Browsing any article about North Korea should give us a hint about the self-imposed gullibility or the very conscious advocacy on the part of our media.

 Jia could have engaged in honest discourse. She could have admitted that her parents' actions were morally wrong, but she still loved them as parents. Jia's brand was already about commodifying the self. Why not invoke her brand to discuss the implications of capitalism and globalization on this scale? But it seems like she is not the type to challenge power and write out a grand indictment of everyone in control and all of the global capital. That's why she probably went the easier route. 

For clarity, let's trace the history of what exactly happened in the Philippines around the 1980s to understand this. In the 1970s, Ferdinand Marcos, the US-backed tyrant, was facing fierce opposition from a strong communist movement on one side of the country and a fierce guerrilla Islamic liberation movement on the other side.

The Philippines was suffering from food shortages, exacerbated by typhoons and floods. The food shortages and displacements fed into the discontent, making the rebellion even stronger. Marcos declared martial law and waged war on his own people, killing 10,000. Some sources say he used napalm on his own population

After crushing the majority of the rebel forces, Marcos found a perfect solution to quell the unrest at home—and to deal with the unemployment and trade imbalance problems he had with the IMF. For Marcos, sending workers overseas allowed him to scatter any organized resistance to the far corners of the world. Plus, it keeps the families dependent on overseas labor, which discouraged any rebellion domestically.

Many gulf countries were facing labor shortages. In a perfect blend of capitalist interests, Marcos created the Labour Code of the Philippines in 1974. A framework created formal agencies to ease the transaction costs for employing migrant workers. Close to 500,000 Filipinos decided to try their luck abroad during the 15 years of martial law. They sent back their remittances, which now totals 10% of the GDP.

Filipinas in Copenhagen in 1973

In the beginning, the government served as the only intermediary between the employers and the labor market. In 1976, the government deregulated and allowed private labor brokers to take over. According to a 2004 survey, the Philippines' private labor brokerage industry earns annual revenue of USD 511 million. Currently, there are 3723 registered recruitment agencies and a large heap of unregistered recruitment agencies. 

Filipino laws clearly say that recruitment agencies cannot charge more than one month's salaries. However, it seems like the government does not particularly care to enforce these laws. The sheer poverty and desperation force the most vulnerable people to borrow money to cover agency fees. Sometimes the agencies themselves lend money at predatory rates: A study from Israel showed that 23% of Filipino workers are still paying their debt after two years. 5% have not yet repaid their loans after three years. Most labor contract lasts two years. As a result, most Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) extend their contracts just to pay off the loans from the previous contract.

Recruitment agencies serve to deliver the most compliant and obedient workforce, and also profit from the exploitation. Anyone can be exploited, even the smartest and most educated. Nena Ruiz, a retired teacher, was trafficked and enslaved by a Sony executive.

Today, the Philippines' median family income is 267,000 pesos, which is about 7000 dollars. In 1988, the median family income was 40,000 Pesos. Nurses can start off with $50,000, and teachers can start at $28,000. Like how millions of college students in America take loans to earn a higher income, millions of Filipinos pay recruitment agencies with loans regardless of how burdensome it seems

If they stayed in the Philippines with a local nurse's salary, private schooling would be out of the picture for their children. Instead, they have to adjust to public schools that may be susceptible to various unknowns. However, with a salary from abroad, private schooling becomes affordable. Of course, they imagine their family living in a safe neighborhood and, most importantly, giving their children a better future.

Not all Filipinos fall victim to predatory firms, but even for the most fortunate OFWs—who happen to get an ethical recruiting agency and an angelic employer—being an OFW means bearing a heavy burden. According to UNICEF, 9 million children each year are left behind as their parents work abroad. For these children, along with the increased remittances comes better nutrition, a safer neighborhood, better schools, and better education. They join the upper-middle class of the third world, but at a steep price—they are, in a very real sense, orphaned.

The OFW contracts run for one year, and at the end of the year, the parent gets some time off to visit their children. One worker recounts how she had to leave a 3-week old baby behind. Another man spent twenty years abroad. In those twenty years, he became a distant memory for his kids. When he returned home to retire, he was a stranger to his entire family. Perhaps this is why male suicide rates have increased in the Philippines.

In 1986, The Filipino people were excited to see the dictatorship of Marcos fall. They hoped the democratic presidency of Corazon Aquino would put an end to the constant cycle of family abandonment. But, soon, they realized that the neoliberal order rules over democracy. 

In an expose, a Japanese journalist coined the word Japayuki, a derogatory term for Filipina prostitutes. Many Filipinas who came to work in Japan would get married to rural Japanese men. Rural Japanese women were being sent to the cities for more opportunities. The government's response was to valorize them as heroes and offer empty rhetoric. 

In response to this, Filipinas in Japan organized the Philippine Women's League of Japanese. They were the first to highlight the Philippine officials’ duplicitousness. They said, "for their failure to address properly the unemployment problem, politicians back home have resorted to flattering the egos of Filipino workers stranded abroad with such accolades as 'unsung heroes,' 'saints,' etc. even when many of them are ending up in foreign jails."

They do have a point. Many migrant workers die from unsafe working conditions, or mere carelessness, where their lives don't matter. A Filipino worker died while working on the Doha metro. In Saudi Arabia, migrant workers died after a crane accident. Just last year, a Filipino migrant was killed after an accident with the cleaning machinery in Canada. Most recently, there is a worldwide toll that's borne by Filipino healthcare workers amidst the COVID-19 crisis

The worst-case scenario for these workers questions the benevolence of the universe. It shows the depths of potential evil in humans. Even western Democracies aren't free for them. Fedelina Lugosan was smuggled to the US as a teenager and enslaved for the next 65 years. She has finally reunited with her family.A German diplomat abused and enslaved two Filipina women.

Lest you think the abuse is limited to domestic workers, nurses in one of New York's most prominent hospitals recently won a labor abuse case. They were forced to work long hours for less than minimum wage. If this can happen in a "western democracy", what hope is there in a country like Saudi Arabia?

A nation of nearly 100 million desperate workers has allowed for the most parasitic businesses to thrive, with the help of recruitment agencies. With this glimmer of light, the agencies start off asking for small investments from potential candidates. Jia's grandmother perfected the tactic of starting small and then ballooning the debt.

Jia’s grandmother Florita Tolentino

In 1988, her grandmother Florita Tolentino started a business to recruit nurses from the Philippines. In 1992, she expanded it to teachers and nurses. In 2001, the family business was a significant beneficiary of the No Child Left Behind program. Her grandmother even lobbied Congress to allow teachers from the Philippines to come to teach in Texas. In 2002, Florita Torentino claimed that the state of Texas needed 800 teachers.  In 2001, she falsely claimed that Texas's teachers make $3000 a month and are exempt from paying taxes*.

The court records say that the Tolentino family took the school administrators on an all-expenses-paid beach resort to Hong Kong and the Philippines, where they "interviewed" the teachers. In exchange for this trip, they agreed to hire Filipina teachers. At first, the school district said they would employ 55 teachers.

With this preliminary order, the Tolentino family charged each of the teachers $6000 of a non-refundable deposit. Those who could afford it mortgaged their property and took out bank loans at reasonable interest rates. For those who couldn't, Omni Consortium charged a fee with a 5% interest compounded monthly, which was an annual interest rate of 60%. On top of that, Omni took 50% of the salaries for the first few years. The teachers recruited by Omni Consortium were already in $12000 of debt. Before they had even made it to the US, they were in debt roughly equivalent to two years of a median family income in The Philippines.

Before the date of travel, the school district changed its mind and said it only needed 16 teachers. Instead of returning the money, they lied to the teachers. Omni Consortium created fake employment applications and filed false visa documents. They also plunged the teachers deeper into debt bondage, forcing them to come to the US. Omni knew that there was no job waiting for the majority of teachers, yet they brought them over. The teachers lived in cramped quarters, with no furniture. Many had hardly any food. According to the FBI agent who investigated the case, they received a tip from an anxious catholic priest in the Philippines. The Catholic priest spoke about their living conditions, which began the FBI investigation.

While the teachers lived in absolute misery, Jia went to a fancy private school where the tuition costs $15000 a year. She also seemed to have money to travel to Venice and have a comfortable existence. 

Further investigation showed that nearly 373 teachers were brought over, exploited, and extorted during this period. In 2004, after the rescue of the teachers, everyone in the business was finally charged. After a lengthy trial, lawyers hired by the Tolentinos—likely with money the workers themselves had paid—secured a ruling of mistrial on a technicality: Two of the jurors had read some newspaper articles about this case. Finally, as it is in most cases, the family reached a plea bargain with the prosecutors. 

As for the teachers, some stayed on. Others went back home to the Philippines, but luckily, all of them got their debts canceled. It is unknown if anyone got restitution for the lost wages.

Jia tried to paint her family as a victim of ICE's persecution. Ironically, our framework to deal with undocumented immigrants via ICE creates the environment for exploitation: their status as “illegal” leaves debt-ridden, desperate people little recourse against the extortion of predatory recruitment agencies.  Quite often, calling ICE is used as a union-busting tactic.

Every year, nearly 66,000 Filipino workers come to the US. Almost 55% of them report working for less than minimum wage, and 44% of them  describe some kind of abuse.  The problem is much bigger than we think. If we, as a world, are to tackle this enormous problem that tears families apart and sucks out the humanity in many of us, we must learn to differentiate the victims from the collaborators. We must see through the trick mirror.

*No one is exempt from paying federal income taxes unless there is a specific tax treaty between the two countries, even then, you'd have to pay taxes in your home country.

[Edited 2020-05-25 to address Jia’s claim]

Today, she wrote:

I’m not sure that those who have been tweeting the horrific claims of usury and threats and abuse in the first federal indictment are interested in actually understanding the court case: I have had fifteen years to reckon with the possibility that the Bush-era security apparatus was righteous and truthful and that my parents were inhumane and deceptive.

By using the term, “Bush-era security apparatus,” she is appealing to people’s emotions. We know for a fact that many innocent people were targeted after 9/11. But that does not mean her logic is sound. For example, the police department in Wichita, Kansas has repeatedly violated civil rights. Their methods and practices are extremely shoddy and have an extraordinary number of false convictions. However, that does not mean that the BTK Killer is innocent. Each case must be examined in particular. One can’t use the reputation of an agency in general as a cover.

I understand the argument that any business involving immigration is inherently unethical: this is part of why I want to report out what their company was actually like, interview the nurses and teachers they worked with.

Jia, conveniently, ignores reports from teachers who were victims of the company. Evidence to back-up our assertion:

For now, I’ll just say what I wasn’t expecting might need articulation: I would never have written this if I believed—I would have cut my parents off years ago if any actual scrutiny of the full casework suggested—that these allegations, which disappeared from the case after they could not be upheld in court, were true.]

Jia now produces a red-herring. Frequently, the government throws various charges at people in hopes of getting them to plea down. Yes, her parents did not bring in people who were “illegal.” Therefore, they did not technically commit 8 USC § 1324. But, that does not mean they did not violate numerous other statutes such as those against extortion, forced labor, and fraud. There is plenty of evidence to overwhelmingly suggest that they indeed had a business of doing just that.

In fact, her parents were charged with one destruction of records, which makes me wonder how many other instances of extortion did they get away with.

Link to the thread with some extra details

Content Warning: