Build up the body of Christ. Support the Pentecost Offering.

Humans are being trafficked all over the world, including our neighborhoods

Mission Co-worker Cathy Chang tells ‘A Matter of Faith’ that people of conscience can help reduce suffering by using both eyes and ears

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Photo by Kate Oseen via Unsplash

LOUISVILLE — In the days before the Rev. Cathy Chang, a mission co-worker serving in the Philippines, was red-tagged having been accused of supporting groups perceived as terrorists through stickers and a tarpaulin affixed at her home in Quezon City, she spoke on the scourge of human trafficking with the hosts of “A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast.”

The Rev. Lee Catoe, managing editor of Unbound: An Interactive Journal of Christian Social Justice, and Simon Doong, a mission specialist with the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program, host the weekly podcast, which dropped Thursday. Listen to their conversation with Chang here.

“We recorded this one week before she was red-tagged,” Catoe says just before the conversation with Chang is heard. “We are saying a prayer for Cathy and Cathy’s family.”

A listener question was the impetus for the conversation. “I recently learned that human trafficking is, in fact, still happening,” the listener wrote. “I thought this practice and business died a long time ago, but clearly I was wrong. It’s all over the world! And not only in ‘developing countries!’ As an individual, what can I do to prevent it? In the world context, is there something I can do?”

“I am so grateful for the awareness and the awakening that the question brings,” Chang said, adding there’s “some mythology, superstition and misinformation” in many people’s understanding of the complexity of human trafficking, a broad area that includes online abuse as well as exploitation in the workplace.

Three words are key in the latter case, according to Chang: force, fraud and coercion. “On paper, the job asked for someone who’s a janitor, teacher or nurse. But the coercion is asking for something else or demanding something else,” Chang said. “I may be coerced to stay because as an employee I may have surrendered my passport or my identity documents.”

“Now I am under threat. If I were to say anything to another employee, law enforcement — even a family member — they also might be under threat.”

When they think about what human trafficking is, many people immediately focus on sexual abuse, especially of children, Chang noted.

“The misunderstanding is when you’re talking about trafficking, work and employment conditions should also elicit that same kind of reaction,” Chang said.

The Rev. Cathy Chang

The first human trafficking survivor Chang ever met was while Chang was serving a church in Michigan. “That human trafficking survivor made concrete to me that human trafficking was not happening ‘over there somewhere,’ but was happening in a home-based daycare center. She was speaking out of her own experience. She could remember some things, and some things due to trauma had been blocked off.”

“Human trafficking for me is a learning experience,” Chang said. “It’s not just happening in developing countries. It’s happening in a Midwest county home-based daycare.”

Many people don’t want to talk about human trafficking “because to unpack it is to elicit some of the uncomfortable, awkward — some people might say degrading and even demeaning and dehumanizing — aspects of it,” Chang said.

Turning to what she’s seeing in the Philippines — since 2015, Chang has served at the invitation of the United Church of Christ in the Philippines, a global partner of the PC(USA) — at least 10% of the nation’s 112.5 million people is working or living abroad, Chang said. “That means people have migrated to find employment. But just to be clear, I’m not equating migration with human trafficking,” she said. “But in some of those situations, migrants go abroad and are taken advantage of by a system that may lead to a situation of human trafficking. Some potential workers going abroad are susceptible to schemes in employment situations.”

According to a UNICEF report, the Philippines has emerged as the center of child sex abuse materials production in the world, with 80% of Filipino children vulnerable to online sexual abuse — some facilitated by their own parents.

“This is a form of trafficking because of the business transactional nature,” Chang said. “Somebody is perpetrating it and allowing it to happen, and someone is on the other end of the screen paying for it, asking for it, requesting different things to happen.”

“It’s not just the technology or the money schemes behind it,” Chang said, “but the cultural attitudes that allow it to happen.”

“It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by this system that you know exists,” Doong said. “So, what do you do if you see something suspicious — or how do you even recognize there’s something suspicious going on? People are very obviously trying to hide these activities. What’s an individual’s responsibility?”

“We are part of a system — the air we breathe, the water we drink — and yet what do we do as people of conscience, people who don’t want to be standing by?” Chang replied, adding she was reminded of a saying that became commonplace following the 9/11 attacks: “If you see something, say something.”

“What does it mean to watch and be vigilant? Do I have that responsibility to my fellow citizen? That’s a lot to unpack,” Chang said.

She gave this example: Say that I, “a woman who has lived in the U.S. for over 40 years in my particular middle-class background,” walk into a nail salon at the local mall. “I’m an Asian woman in a salon already populated by Asian workers. I don’t have any idea what country they came from, but in the course of chit-chat and getting to know each other just a little bit, who knows? Do I assume the worst, or do I assume the best? Of course,” Chang said, “I want to care because of who I am, but I don’t want to go in as a forensic investigator trying to get my pedicure.”

“I think I would want to know a few things before I jump to conclusions,” Chang said. “Who’s handling the money? Do [workers] look like they can move freely? Of course, I want to ask all those questions. But before I do, I just want to get to know the situation. I don’t want to assume the worst, but I do want with eyes wide open to know that it could be happening. The human trafficking could be happening right under my nose.”

“Whether they’re working under good conditions or dire conditions, I do not know. It’s not for me to really ponder that,” Chang said. “But at least I can begin a relationship that’s more than just transactional: ‘I’m just here for my pedicure, thank you very much. I’ll be on my way, and you’ll be on your way too as the one who is doing this service for me.’”

Chang said when she and others first learned that human trafficking was occurring in that Michigan community, “we formed an anti-human trafficking task force consisting of law enforcement, emergency room personnel, other faith leaders, teachers and social workers.”

“Maybe that’s not the case for everyone, whether it’s in the U.S. or wherever you live,” she said. In the Philippines, “Migration is 10% of our population. People know that, but they don’t want to talk about human trafficking and they don’t want to talk about the sexual exploitation of children.”

“That’s the place we are now, saying, ‘Let’s not just talk about it. Let’s try to hold technology companies accountable for what they’re doing and allowing.’ That’s a whole new podcast,” she told Doong and Catoe.

“You told us at the start that’s the place where our faith starts, with relationships,” Doong said.

A new edition of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) podcast “A Matter of Faith” drops every Thursday.

“As Presbyterians, we believe we’re called in everything we do,” Catoe said. “Everything we’re called to do is there for the glory of God. Sometimes we think we all have to be the protester or we all have to be calling our politicians all the time. There are so many ways to get involved that can meet what you are gifted at doing and be open to talk about hard stuff like this. If we’re not, we’re doing a disservice to ourselves and the people this is impacting.”

“I hope we can be open. The church has not often been good about having these conversations,” Catoe said. “We can’t even have a conversation when it’s essentially terrorizing somebody. I really appreciate your words,” Catoe told Chang.

“We’re all on the same team, in a way,” Chang replied. “We may not see that, but if justice and wholeness, fullness of life and human dignity are our aims, we can understand this has to be more holistic and it cannot be about the work of just one church, one faith, one social service agency or a particularly gifted sheriff’s deputy or something like that.”

“That’s why we talk about what it means to be a neighbor in these times of vigilance — what it means to look out and be aware and try to do something,” she said.

Along with the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program, Chang is helping to coordinate a Travel Study Seminar Feb. 3-17, 2023, to the Philippines and Hong Kong. “You need to understand what is happening in the country of origin, the Philippines, before you can understand what’s happening in Hong Kong, the country of destination,” Chang said. Seminar participants will “get to meet the migrants’ families who are left behind [in the Philippines] and get a better sense of what the country’s like. You’ll also get to worship with some of the families and hear from organizations that are accompanying migrants and their families.” In Hong Kong, “you’ll meet those domestic workers who have decided to go abroad and are sending money back home and are caring for families in Hong Kong. And you’ll meet the organizations accompanying them. This will be a unique way to learn about trafficking and forced labor from the vantage point of two countries.”

Learn more about the Travel Study Seminar here. A toolkit for taking action against human trafficking is here.


Creative_Commons-BYNCNDYou may freely reuse and distribute this article in its entirety for non-commercial purposes in any medium. Please include author attribution, photography credits, and a link to the original article. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDeratives 4.0 International License.

  • Subscribe to the PC(USA) News

  • Interested in receiving either of the PC(USA) newsletters in your inbox?

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.