Melba regularly showed up at Boston Children’s Hospital in 2018 to accompany a child she cared for who was being treated there.
But nobody noticed — or asked about — Melba’s own suffering.
The petite Filipina was miserable, working more than 100 hours a week as a maid and nanny, earning between $400 and $550 a month from her employers, a married couple from the United Arab Emirates.
Her visits twice a a month to the hospital to accompany the couple's son were some of the few occasions she had to leave their two-bedroom Brookline apartment. She had no U.S. currency, no days off, and wasn’t allowed out of the house alone. She was fearful of the family who withheld her passport and told her she’d be arrested if she went out without them.
Melba finally escaped a year after she arrived, sneaking down the back stairs in the early morning with the help of advocates and a good Samaritan. Melba knew she was miserable but quickly learned that what happened to her had a name in the United States: labor trafficking.
“I’m not animals, I’m human," said Melba, who requested that GBH withhold her full name to protect her privacy, tearing up as she detailed her yearlong ordeal. “I thought I couldn’t cry anymore, but I remember again.”
More than 180 people in Massachusetts have reached out to the National Human Trafficking Hotline reporting allegations of forced labor since 2016, according to the nonprofit’s most recent statistics. But advocates and government officials say those numbers are a vast undercount — that labor trafficking victims like Melba are all around us, hidden in plain sight, working in construction, hotels, restaurants and as domestic workers in private homes and offices.
Caddie Nath-Folsom, a legal services attorney in Brockton, says many people don’t recognize when someone is a victim of labor trafficking because they are expecting a Hollywood-type character: someone chained to a radiator, or locked in a shed, forced to work without pay. Instead, she says, many like Melba are imprisoned by psychological constraints — fear of arrest, deportation, homelessness or other threats — while those in power are profiting.
“Most people have interacted with someone who is being trafficked and don't realize it,” said Nath-Folsom, who works with the Justice Center of Southeast Massachusetts. “Think of it more as someone who is being forced to work in terrible conditions, usually dangerous conditions, for unfair or no pay. And they can't leave.”
And abusers are almost never held accountable. Massachusetts lawmakers passed a human trafficking law in 2011 to help victims and to prosecute perpetrators. But there hasn’t been a single forced labor conviction since the law passed, an investigation by the GBH News Center for Investigative Reporting has found.
"Most people have interacted with someone who is being trafficked and don't realize it."Caddie Nath-Folsom, legal services attorney
Melba’s employers left the country soon after she escaped. They disputed and then failed to pay about $160,000 in restitution and penalties for wage-and-hour violations issued by the Office of the Attorney General. They faced no criminal charges, and efforts to track them down have been unsuccessful, her attorney said.
Melba’s story also raises questions about whether local businesses and government officials could be doing more to identify and prevent abuse.
In efforts to reclaim the unpaid salary she was owed under state law, Melba’s attorney, Audrey Richardson, wrote a letter in 2018 to the consul general of the UAE in Boston and officials at Boston Children’s Hospital. She said both organizations shared responsibility because Melba’s employers, Mohammed Shtait Mohammed Shalboud Alkhaili and Hessa Kahmis Alkhaili, were in Boston as part of a medical services program designed for international patients.
“We are extremely concerned that, through the Alkhaili family’s participation in these programs, both the UAE Consulate and (Children’s Hospital) have facilitated and supported egregious violations of Massachusetts law, due to the abusive working conditions and extreme underpayment experienced by the Alkhailis’ domestic employee,’’ wrote Richardson, managing attorney for the Greater Boston Legal Services’ Employment Law Unit.
Officials from the UAE consulate did not respond to GBH News for comment.
Children’s Hospital officials declined to comment about the letter. They said in a written statement that they take “human trafficking very seriously” and have worked with state officials to boost the hospital’s awareness and response to forced labor.
Kristen Dattoli, a communications director at Children's, said the hospital had already trained some departments spotting and reporting human trafficking, but decided earlier this year to expand the required training to all staff.
“Melba’s case was not the cause of this training, but it is one example of the ways in which human trafficking can present,’’ she wrote in an email.
Watch: Woman who escaped forced labor recalls 17-hour days and living in a basement
GBH News has spoken with six women, including Melba, who say they were trafficked when they came to the U.S. with employers seeking medical treatment in the Boston area. Three of them told GBH News they regularly walked the halls of Children’s Hospital hoping for help. They talked about feeling invisible, forbidden to talk to strangers by their employers, and unsure of their legal rights. Stories like theirs are prompting an increasing number of advocates to say the healthcare industry — here and across the nation — should be part of the solution.
Hanni Stoklosa, an emergency physician at Brigham and Women's Hospital and chief executive of a nonprofit called HEAL Trafficking, says Massachusetts should follow the lead of other states to mandate anti-trafficking training for health professionals. While her hospital does offer such training, she says, it’s not required. Brigham and Women's officials say they work hard to provide training, particularly in areas where trafficked victims are likely to show up. But Stoklosa says too many health practitioners only have the tools to heal their patients’ physical wounds but not the skills to help those hurting in other ways.
Stoklosa says she didn’t have direct evidence — until GBH told her — that labor trafficking victims who were not patients themselves had walked through a local hospital, but she isn’t surprised. Studies show anywhere from 30% to 90% of trafficking victims access medical treatment at some point during their exploitation.
“I know in my heart of hearts that victims of labor trafficking are coming through my health system and I don't have the tools to identify them and get them the help that they need,’’ she said. “It’s heartbreaking.”
Domestic workers and custodians are particularly vulnerable to trafficking because they work in private homes or late at night cleaning office buildings. When they are discovered, many victims either decline to file charges because they fear the consequences or even because of affection for the children of their employers; in other cases law enforcement see their cases more as wage dispute than a trafficking crime. Some of the victims return to their home countries after reaching a financial settlement with their employers.
Greselda De Leon said her employers — a couple who hailed from a suburb near Dubai — kept her working long days in Brookline as a maid a decade ago, unpaid for months, sleeping on a thin mattress on the floor and prohibited from leaving their apartment alone.
She says the family came to the United States to receive services for one of their children, a triplet, who had a series of serious medical issues. She spent countless hours at Children’s Hospital, dressed in a maid’s uniform, largely invisible to those around her. She didn’t understand she had a right to ask for help. “At least I’m eating, at least they don’t beat me,’’ said De Leon. “My only concern is they are not paying me.”
On a cold winter day in 2012, De Leon fled, wearing only slippers and her thin uniform. She didn’t have any money or her passport. She later obtained a so-called T-visa showing she successfully demonstrated to the federal government that she was a victim of a “severe form of trafficking.” But De Leon says she chose not to push for criminal charges because of her affection for her employer’s youngest children.
“Those three triplets, I love them so much,’’ she said. “I treat them like my kids.”
Melba says she came to Boston in May 2017 with a couple from Abu Dhabi and their four children. They were there to obtain treatment for their 6-year-old boy who suffered from serious medical issues.
Like many Filipinas who leave the South Asian archipelagic country to earn a living, she described working abroad as a nanny and house cleaner for years, bouncing between contracts, working nonstop, living with her employers and sending her earnings back home. These positions put them at risk for abuse and exploitation. A recent report shows that between fiscal years 2008 and 2021, people born in the Philippines received 22% of all U.S. visas approved for victims of trafficking.
Melba says the family had reached out to her on social media, because she had worked for them in the past. They told her she’d earn $400 a month — a salary they said would increase in the United States. She took the job because she needed more than the $58 a month she earned working back home in a laundry facility. To get her visa, she says, the couple instructed her to tell U.S. officials she’d be working eight hours a day and making more than minimum wage.
Melba says she did what she was told, even though she was unsure of the exact nature of her pay. She was excited about the opportunity to live in the United States, but was surprised upon arrival to see how small their living quarters were. She slept on a thin pad in an open laundry room, surrounded by children’s toys.
She says her male employer traveled back and forth from the UAE. When he was away, her “lady boss” would go out during the day and most nights, leaving her alone, working 16 to 17 hours a day. The 16-year-old daughter called her names like “dog” and “cow.”
Melba says she wanted to escape but was afraid. The woman warned her that if she left the house, she’d be arrested. “She told me if I’m not with them, the police catch me,” she said.
"She told me if I'm not with them, the police catch me."Melba
Finally, a woman saw her standing outside the Longwood Towers apartments, looking frightened, as she sent the children off to school. Over time, they gained a trust. Melba felt a glimmer of hope. “I tell her that I'm doing a lot of work over here and my boss didn’t give me [time] off, and my salary is too low,’’ she said.
The woman told her that what was happening wasn’t legal. She introduced her to a former staff member at the nonprofit Matahari Women Worker’s Center, who helped Melba plan her escape.
Melba says her employer usually held her passport but had given it to her about a week before, bolstering her plans to flee. That morning, she snuck out the backstairs at 5:30 a.m., while the family was sleeping.
“I’m happy and nervous when I escape,’’ she remembered, “and I’m sad also because the 6-years-old needs care.’’
She was met by two advocates who took her to a safe house. They helped her obtain funding to cover rent and food. She couldn’t work while waiting to obtain a T-visa and was terrified of being caught by the police. She struggled with depression and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Melba agreed to speak to GBH News in hopes her traffickers are held accountable. She had requested an interpreter but decided to use her own voice and halting English to best explain her trauma during a three-hour interview in her attorney's downtown Boston office.
Detailing what happened still makes her cry, mostly the inhumanity of it. She was required to work even when she was sick. She asked to see a doctor after cleaning supplies burnt her skin — but her employers said no.
“They are rich, but they cannot afford to get the doctors for you,’’ she said. “I don’t want them to do that to other people.”
After her escape, the attorney general’s office notified her employers that they had violated state labor laws. State officials said they sometimes seek civil charges rather than criminal ones, because it can be an easier path to restitution for victims.
But Melba was never repaid.
Forced labor often goes unrecognized, victims unclear on their rights
Months after Melba's escape, state officials sent aletter to the consul general of the UAE in Boston notifying him that they had received five “serious wage theft complaints” against UAE nationals over the last year from domestic workers.
“Each alleged that they were brought to Massachusetts from the UAE by their employers, and their employers failed to pay timely wages, minimum wage and overtime. Some alleged physical abuse by their employers,” the letter said. “These are serious charges that may violate civil and criminal laws.”
Cynthia Mark, chief of the Attorney General’s Fair Labor Division, who signed the letter, asked the consul general to meet so “we might work together to avoid similar situations in the future.”
UAE officials did meet and agreed to “provide and share information and materials on our labor laws,” according to the attorney general’s office.
But the lack of criminal prosecutions frustrates some labor advocates like Massachusetts state Sen. Lydia Edwards, a Democrat from Boston.
“We should start putting people in jail,” Edwards said in late September. “It’s modern-day slavery, for heaven’s sake. You don't get to be a slaver in 2022 and write a check and settle."
"It's modern-day slavery, for heaven's sake. You don't get to be a slaver in 2022 and write a check and settle."Massachusetts state Sen. Lydia Edwards
Both across the country and in Massachusetts, prosecutors are far more likely to pursue sex trafficking cases than labor trafficking, Althoughglobal data shows the scourge of labor trafficking is more widespread. And a federal Trafficking in Persons report, released in July, shows 68% of foreign nationals seeking assistance from the federal government were victims of labor trafficking.
In Massachusetts, state prosecutors have filed about a dozen forced labor cases and not yet won a conviction, according to court data obtained by GBH News updated in August. In comparison, state prosecutors have filed more than 200 sex trafficking cases that have resulted in 75 convictions, records show.
Prosecutors hope to finally notch a conviction next year in the case against a New Bedford janitor and his employer for alleged trafficking of two immigrant women — from Senegal and Portugal — who worked at night cleaning office buildings.
The two women told prosecutors they were forced to clean for little or no pay. They say the janitor, Fernando Roland, abused them, and owners of the Rhode Island–based cleaning company, Martins Maintenance, looked the other way.
One of them said in a 2020 court hearing that she didn’t run away sooner because Roland had threatened her and warned her that she would be arrested if she left. When she finally escaped, she was terrified, wearing only the African garb she’d carried with her into the country.
“I didn't know who to trust and who to talk to,” the woman said in court testimony obtained by GBH News. “I didn't know if people would believe me and would really help me because I'm just an immigrant.”
If the state wins, it would also mark the first time a company in Massachusetts has been held accountable for labor trafficking. A lawyer for Martins Maintenance did not respond to requests for comment; an attorney for Roland declined to discuss his client’s case. The two connected cases are expected to go to trial next year.
Attorney General Maura Healey told GBH News last week that labor trafficking is underreported in Massachusetts, in large part because people don't recognize the signs.
"We want to hold perpetrators accountable, and we also want to work really hard to support survivors," Healey said. "These cases can be hard to find because traffickers, first of all, fly under the radar. And also most victims don't realize that they're actually being trafficked."
She said her office is working with law enforcement, labor unions and advocacy organizations to change this.
Among those efforts, Healey’s office last year released a 5-minute video detailing how to identify a potential trafficking victim. The video features a fictional character named Nora who works as a house cleaner, seen by neighbors working early in the morning and late at night.
“You might be witnessing something called labor trafficking. Nora may be in a desperate situation and unable to ask for help,’’ the video says. “Someone like you could be her only hope.”
In 2019, Healey's office, in collaboration with Boston University School of Law, released an app to help investigators identify labor trafficking and help victims.
But some anti-trafficking advocates say these efforts don’t go far enough.
In 2014, a subcommittee of state officials and advocates released a list of recommendations to facilitate the state’s new labor trafficking law, focusing on training, public awareness, data collection and reducing demand for forced labor. Some efforts — like those launched by Healey’s office — have been implemented. But other plans remain undone, including a mandate to provide labor trafficking training to workers in places “where professionals may interact with victims” and posting information at businesses and public areas.
The failure to follow through was cited in a 2019 report by the Massachusetts Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, which found the earlier recommendations “remain mostly unfulfilled.”
David Harris, a civil rights advocate who chairs the advisory committee, says there’s been a lack of commitment in the state to enforce the labor trafficking law.
“This is a law that's designed to address the needs of some of the most invisible people in our society,” said Harris, former managing director of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School. “We don't do well keeping our commitments or meeting our obligations to the least of us.”
Massachusetts is not alone in its thin record of prosecuting labor traffickers.
In 2000, the United States Congress passed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, touted as the first “comprehensive” federal trafficking law meant to protect victims and punish abusers.
But since its passage, prosecutors have focused almost exclusively on sex trafficking cases. Since 2011, the Department of Justice secured 239 convictions that primarily dealt with forced labor, compared to about 3,039 cases of sex trafficking, according to a GBH analysis of federal data.
Erin Albright, a national expert who helped write the Massachusetts human trafficking law, says too often forced labor goes unidentified because it is often confused with wage and hour violations. It’s harder to find because people are doing work that looks legal, unlike in the sex industry. She also attributes the disparity to racism.
“We still tend to be a little discriminatory toward immigrants, towards women, towards those low wage sectors,’’ she said.
In Massachusetts, the United State’s Attorney’s Office has filed just three labor trafficking cases in 22 years — only one of which resulted in a conviction.
The case involved a woman charged with running more than 20 brothels in Massachusetts, including forcing some to work there as cleaners. She was sentenced in 2013 to five years in prison.
Another federal case filed in Massachusetts involves a Saudi princess named Hana Al Jader who was accused in 2005 of trafficking domestic workers out of her three Boston-area homes. In court, prosecutors described Al Jader's treatment of two Indonesian workers: "restricting their access to the outside world, confiscating and holding their passports, and paying them meager wages."
Similar to Melba’s story, the family had come to the United States for medical treatment. In this case, the prince was recuperating from a serious accident.
Al Jader pleaded guilty to lesser charges and was sentenced to six months of house arrest and financial penalties.
U.S. Attorney Rachael Rollins, who took office in January, told GBH News last month that she wants to see more forced labor prosecutions. She created a human trafficking unit in her office and plans to increase education to prevent abuse and bring more cases.
“It is vastly under reported. It is vastly under-investigated and it is vastly under-prosecuted,’’ Rollins said. “My hope is that we're going to be talking about this a lot more in the very near future.”
In the meantime, attorney Audrey Richardson is still trying to seek help for her client Melba.
After hearing nothing after her 2018 letter to the UAE consulate, Richardson wrote another letter in 2020. She explained Melba’s employers had left the country after being notified by the attorney general’s office that they owed money. She said if they can’t locate the family, the UAE government should pay up instead.
“They're setting up this whole system and basically creating a situation in which people are importing these horrific labor practices to the U.S.,’’ Richardson said. “You can't make right what has happened, but at least to come forward and to compensate those who have been wronged.”
So far she’s received no response.
GBH reporter Phillip Martin and GBH interns Cameron Pugh and Samantha Vega-Torres contributed to this story. The project was launched in an investigative journalism class taught by Jenifer McKim at Boston University. Student contributers include Annie Sheehan, Artemis Huang, Emma Glassman-Hughes, Grayson Rice, Henry Kuczynski, Janu Pangeni, Madison Dudley, Sasha Ray, Meera Raman, Jusneel Mahal, Madiha Gomaa, Nini Mtchedlishvili, Rasheek Mujib, Sukanya Mitra and Jean Paul Azzopardi.
This story was reported as part of a partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and other media partners.