NEW YORK - “In this country, dogs have more rights than [you].”
Those are the words a Los Angeles-based trafficker used to dehumanize Flor Molina, an immigrant from Puebla, Mexico, after locking her inside a sewing factory in January 2002.
Nearly 17 years after her escape, Molina’s story is one of survival and overcoming steep odds to become a champion for victims of labor trafficking. It also underscores the vulnerabilities migrants continue to face in 2018.
Over the weekend, Free the Slaves, an advocacy organization dedicated to the eradication of global trafficking, honored Molina in New York City with the 2018 Fashion for Freedom Award, a tribute to her advocacy for labor trafficking victims and for the “conscious consumerism movement” in the ethical fashion industry, according to Free the Slaves special projects manager Allie Gardner.
WATCH: Survivor Recounts Horror of Trafficking
In an interview with VOA, Molina said the award was an opportunity to honor other survivors who “cannot speak.”
“I’m able to speak, so I’m here representing them,” she said.
Locked in the factory
That first California winter, Molina endured verbal and physical abuse at the hands of her “boss,” a woman she described to VOA as old and manipulative. The "boss" coerced Molina to work for her to repay her for smuggling the then-26 year old into the U.S.
Within the first week of Molina’s duties, her trafficker decided that arranging for Molina’s commute and housing was wasting her time, and that it would it be better if Molina slept in the factory. There was no shower there, and Molina was denied a change of clothing. She was forbidden from venturing outside or talking to anyone else in the building.
“With trafficking, they take away what makes you feel good about you,” Molina said, describing her experience. “She started pulling my hair, pinching me, slapping me — making me feel bad about my origin all the time. Making me feel that I have no value.”
Disoriented and humiliated, Molina’s first weeks in the United States consisted of one meal per day, 18-plus-hour shifts, and zero communication with her family back home. Atop a shared mattress in a small storage room, she slept beside finely crafted dresses worth seemingly more than her dignity.
“What [Molina’s experience] reminds us is that slavery isn’t something over there. It’s something over here,” said Maurice Middleberg, executive director of Free the Slaves.
“As long as it exists anywhere, we run the risk of having the slave next door, the slave who’s serving us, the slave who’s working for us. And I don’t think any decent American wants to be party to that,” Middleberg said.
From survivor to advocate
Before she ever left Mexico, Molina suffered from depression, due to her newborn child’s death following a high-risk pregnancy. Unable to afford hospital expenses, she determined she would find a way to take care of her mother and remaining three children. She was lured into an “opportunity,” she thought, that would help her achieve her dream of owning a sewing business.
But at the onset, she relinquished her identification documents to the trafficker, “for [her] safety.” When conditions worsened at the factory, the trafficker warned her that no one would believe her story. After all, she was an undocumented Spanish-speaker, and knew no one outside the factory.
After incessantly pleading for permission to attend church, combined with hardworking gestures to prove she “deserved” the opportunity, Molina was allowed to go. She would never return.
Following her escape, Molina cooperated with federal authorities who were already investigating the garment factory. They allowed her to remain in the United States under a T visa provided to certain victims of human trafficking and qualifying family members.
She became involved with the Los Angeles-based Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Human Trafficking (CAST) and testified on behalf of two separate bills: the California Trafficking Victims Protection Act (AB 22), which made trafficking a crime in California in 2005, and the California Transparency in Supply Chains Act of 2010 (SB 659), which required large retailers and manufacturers to disclose their efforts “to eradicate slavery and human trafficking from their direct supply chains.”
“We, as consumers, have a bigger responsibility because we are the ones who are paying for the goods,” Molina said. “We have to make sure there’s no slavery in the supply chain.”
In 2015, Molina was appointed by former President Barack Obama to the U.S. Advisory Council on Human Trafficking. Her efforts continue today.
In the U.S., an estimated 403,000 people continue to live in modern slavery, or 1.3 of every 1,000 people, according to a 2018 report by the Global Slavery Index. Worldwide, an estimated 24.9 out of 40.3 million people living in modern slavery are victims of forced labor.
“It’s the most impoverished, the most stigmatized, and marginalized — the people who are most at-risk — that traffickers then exploit,” Middleberg said.
“That’s certainly the case here in the United States with undocumented immigrants right now,” he added. “They deserve special protection.”