My life as a sex-trafficking victim

Shandra WoworuntuImage copyright
Lynn Savarese

Shandra Woworuntu arrived in the US hoping to start a new career in the hotel industry. Instead, she found she had been trafficked into a world of prostitution and sexual slavery, forced drug-taking and violence. It was months before she was able to turn the tables on her persecutors. Some readers may find her account of the ordeal upsetting.

I arrived in the United States in the first week of June, 2001. To me, America was a place of promise and opportunity. As I moved through immigration I felt excited to be in a new country, albeit one that felt strangely familiar from movies and TV.

In the arrivals hall I heard my name, and turned to see a man holding a sign with my picture. It wasn’t a photo I cared for very much. The recruitment agency in Indonesia had dressed me up in a revealing tank top. But the man holding it smiled at me warmly. His name was Johnny, and I was expecting him to drive me to the hotel I would be working in.

The fact that this hotel was in Chicago, and I had arrived at JFK airport in New York nearly 800 miles away, shows how naive I was. I was 24 and had no idea what I was getting into.

After graduating with a degree in finance, I had worked for an international bank in Indonesia as an analyst and trader. But in 1998, Indonesia was hit by the Asian financial crisis, and the following year the country was thrown into political turmoil. I lost my job.

Image copyright
Shandra Woworuntu

Image caption

Shandra stands just to the right of the man in the centre

So to support my three-year-old daughter I started to look for work overseas. That was when I saw an ad in a newspaper for work in the hospitality industry in big hotels in the US, Japan, Hong Kong and Singapore. I picked the US, and applied.

The requirement was that I could speak a little English and pay a fee of 30m Indonesian rupiahs (in 2001, about $2,700). There was a lengthy recruitment process, with lots of interviews. Among other things they asked me to walk up and down and smile. “Customer service is the key to this job,” I was told.

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