This article originally appeared on VICE France.
Inès sat on the sofa in front of me, her eyes darting around the room, her hands caressing her pregnant belly. “It’s a boy,” she said when I asked her about it. A smile spread across her face as she pictured meeting her baby in a few months’ time.
But her life hasn’t always been this rosy. Inès, who didn’t want to share her full name for safety reasons, comes from a French-speaking African country where she worked as a nail technician. “I wanted to go back to school and France seemed like the perfect option,” she said. Her boss knew about her ambitions and suggested she go live with his sister near Paris.
In the summer of 2016, when she was 23, Inès left for France dreaming of her new life. But the situation proved far from what she’d expected. Her boss’s sister lived in a dilapidated building, crammed into a small apartment with her partner, four children and a baby. “She told me she was going back to work after her maternity leave and that I would have to look after the kids,” Inès said. “I told her, ‘No problem, auntie.’ I thought it made sense to give something back.”
The arrangement turned out to be a trap. Inès was made to take care of all household chores and was forbidden from leaving the apartment, except for school runs. The older kids and their mother would also often take out their frustrations on her, abusing her verbally and physically. “I worked all day, I never got to rest,” she said. The only thing she could do to protect herself was obeying orders as best possible.
Inès’s work routine would last pretty much 24 hours a day. At night, she had to care for the newborn whenever he cried. Then, she’d wake up at 4AM to clean the whole apartment, “even if it was already clean”, she said. After that, it was time to prepare breakfast before the rest of the family woke up. She’d take the kids to school and then cook lunch and dinner according to a list of meals provided by the woman of the house. It was hard and repetitive work: cleaning, cooking, ironing, preparing baby bottles, doing laundry. Each day bled into the next.
Bit by bit, Inès realised she’d had been lied to – she’d never get the chance to study or even look for a job outside the home. A few days after arriving, she realised she couldn’t even eat at the same time as the family. Once, she was caught eating in the kitchen after serving the meal and was told she wasn’t allowed to have food; she’d have to eat the scraps after everyone was finished. Often, she’d make do with bits of rice and chicken leftover on the children’s plates. She quickly lost weight and was often dizzy.
One afternoon, about four months in, Inès was taking the rubbish down to the building’s communal bins when she lost consciousness in the lift. The building’s caretaker found her and realised the severity of her situation. He offered to help feed her and gave her money to ask for legal counselling at a local NGO. Carrying the family’s baby in her arms, Inès finally sought help and was redirected to the Comité Contre l'Esclavage Moderne (the Committee Against Modern Slavery).
To thwart suspicions, the Committee Against Modern Slavery met with her at a local library. They felt it was urgent to get her out of her situation. “One day, when the older brother [of the family] was at home, I left the baby in his crib, pretended I was taking down the rubbish and fled,” she said. The family did not let her go without protest. A few hours later, her “auntie” began calling her incessantly. “In her voice messages, she told me that I didn’t know Paris, that I’d get raped or attacked,” she recalled.
The NGO helped Inès rebuild her life. She was provided with free accommodation for several months and was helped in finding a job. In the meantime, she met someone and fell in love. They decided to start a family. Today, she is pregnant with her second child and wants to forget her past, which still consumes her. Although she could report her captors to the authorities, she has chosen not to. “Even five years later, it’s still hard to talk about it,” she said. “I still cry when I think about it. I’m scared of bumping into her. She’s violent, that’s what worries me.”
Inès’ case is disturbing, but not isolated. Being forced to work may seem like a practice from years gone by, but according to the Global Slavery Index, around 129,000 people were in this situation in France back in 2016. While that number is shocking, the figures for some other European nations are even worse, with an estimated 145,000 people living in conditions of modern slavery in Italy, 167,000 in Germany, and around 136,000 in the UK.
The International Labour Organisation defines forced labour – pretty much another term for slavery – as work performed involuntarily under threat of physical, psychological or economic coercion, for instance when a person is forced to work to pay off a debt. Human trafficking is a related term that refers to the recruitment of migrants through force, fraud or deception with the aim of exploiting their labour.
Often, when we think of human trafficking, we tend to picture those coerced to work in the sex industry, but that’s only a small part of the problem. Construction sites, domestic work, agriculture, elderly caregiving – many sectors appear to offer opportunities to unsuspecting migrants who are then swindled and brutalised behind closed doors.
Their passports are often confiscated on arrival. They’re placed under intense surveillance and made to live in inhumane conditions, often without a bed and with limited access to food and water. Many are made to live on site and to work all the time, especially if they’re performing domestic work for a family.
Inès was initially hesitant about telling her story. She’d never spoken with a journalist before and she asked Zita Cabais-Obra, another formerly trafficked domestic worker, to join her for the interview. Cabais-Obra is 59 and comes from the Philippines. When she was 32, she left her home for Paris, aided by an agency who asked her for €2,000 to organise her journey and find her a job as a cleaner.
“I was raising children for a couple. The wife was a banker and the husband was a professor of political science at the Paris Dauphine University,” she said. The couple immediately confiscated her passport upon arrival and banned her from using a phone and talking to the neighbours. They refused to submit a regular residency application on her behalf, and when she asked about it, a chair was thrown at her in response.
Eventually, Cabais-Obra found the strength to flee and report her exploiters. Having experienced this nightmare herself, she joined the Committee Against Modern Slavery to help others get through these tough times. “I no longer feel like a victim, but like a fighter,” she said. “My mission is to save others. I often think that’s why I went through all this.”
In 2021, the group supported 222 people who had been forced into labour, 71 percent of whom were women. Sometimes, it’s the people themselves who look for help, but doctors, neighbours or strangers often report cases, too. “Recently, a school contacted us because a young girl came to pick up the children without a coat on in middle of winter,” said Committee director Mona Chamass-Saunier. “It’s not just rich families. The poor also exploit the poor,” added Sylvie d’Oy, the president of the organisation.
Every week, the NGO reviews each case and decides how to proceed. They often provide formerly exploited people with legal support to take their exploiters to court – it can take years for the trial to begin, but human trafficking cases regularly result in convictions. In France, the offence can entail a punishment of seven years in prison and a €150,000 fine. In the UK, it can carry up to 18 years. But for many the hardest part comes afterwards, when the formerly exploited must heal their wounds and find their place in society.
Photos of children and families are proudly hung on one of the walls of the NGO’s office as proof that getting out of modern slavery is possible. “People have amazing journeys,” d’Oy said. “A few years ago, we came across a profile about someone we’d helped in Libération [a French newspaper]. She’s now the manager of their canteen. We’re so proud of how well she has done.” The woman – Ismah Susilawati, now 55, from Indonesia – was held captive by a family of Omani diplomats in Paris for two years, before she escaped with the help of a neighbour.
Inès doesn’t know what the future holds for her. For the past few months, she’s been working as an interpreter for the organisation, translating stories of people who’ve been through similar experiences as her. After her baby arrives, she hopes to find another job where she can support people, too. “I want to help so that this stops happening,” she said, her voice more determined than at the beginning of our interview.