Katie Ford Takes Her Fight Against Modern-Slavery To Another Level
"We are opening a business, a legitimate recruitment business for domestic workers, in the Middle East,” she told Philippine Tatler during an interview before a dialogue on anti-human trafficking where she was the guest speaker. Her first time to go into business again after 11 years since she led the top modelling agency started by her parents, Katie explained why. “So many of the people we freed [from modern-day slavery] were promised different jobs so I thought we ought to be involved in this as well,” she said.
Called HousekeepingCo, its mission is to “offer fair hiring for foreign domestic workers world-wide, to support families in their effective engagement and relationship management, and to train every foreign domestic worker and up-skill set in becoming the best of what they can do.” It’s interesting to note that Katie is back in an agency, in the same industry of placing people in jobs. “It is very similar [to the modelling agency],” she agreed. “In fact, I use the concept [of the Ford Agency] here; and I use the example of what my parents did to modelling.”
In 1946, right after World War II, Gerard and Eileen Ford started the Ford Modelling Agency, or Ford Models. “My parents thought it was normal to pay and to protect the young women. That it was nothing special,” she recalled. “But soon, word spread that Ford was paying its models the best rate, so they began switching to them.” In a way, Katie’s parents helped professionalise the modelling industry because other agencies had to follow suit and pay their models fairly lest they lose all of them to Ford. “My mother was the sales person; my father was the business person. He was very measured; she was the fire,” she shared a fond memory.
When it was her turn to run the agency, Katie took it to even greater heights. But after 22 years in the business, she made a major decision of selling it in 2007.
“I sold it because I wanted to do something that I have not done yet but was very passionate about, and this was to work with indigenous groups. I was already approaching 50, and I was telling myself that if I wanted to do that in my life I have to do it soon. When I still have the energy to travel,” she said.
This interest began so early in her life, when she was just 10, triggered by hearing the bushmen of Africa speak. “Have you heard bushmen talk with their clicks?” Katie said, making clicking sounds herself. “That got me.”
What she did next was curious. When she got married in 1985, she asked her husband if they could honeymoon amongst the tribes. “He wanted it too!” Katie justified her unconventional request. The couple went to Thailand and lived with the H’mongs and the Karens. “It was not somebody’s typical idea of a honeymoon to be living in a place where women would chop gruel while babies suck from their breasts then give the gruel to the pigs who were also in the house, just a few feet from where we were sleeping,” she remembered.
Katie’s concept was to help preserve the culture of indigenous groups by assisting them in profit- making endeavours for things within their culture. But a conference against human trafficking at the United Nations led her to another mission. “Right before leaving Ford, the UN had invited me to this conference. I had already hired someone to work on my tribe project, but I went to this conference anyway,” she related. “And I could understand it so much! The vulnerability of people who have a dream to have a better life for their families, so they travel abroad to work but are duped into doing something else.”
She came back from the conference with a firmer belief that the fight against human trafficking is where she really can do so much more.
Katie started on familiar grounds, using the network of Ford Models to do public service announcements for different international groups fighting modern-day slavery. In 2011, she organised Freedom For All which today partners with nine groups in six countries. One group she works with is Voice of the Free (formerly known as the Visayan Forum), run by the indefatigable anti-slavery advocate Cecilia Oebanda. “She’s been recommended to me by the International Office of Migration and that blossomed into such a good relationship,” Katie said.
This mission must come with a heavy burden from heart-rending stories and herculean challenges regularly encountered in this fight. But there are also heart-warming stories, like this man from India. “We gave a man US$500 and he opened a store. Next time I visited, he had a house with electricity and his children were going to good schools! It’s real transformation. This is what inspires me, when you see freedom. All they need is to be given an opportunity,” Katie said.
Or the three young girls of the Visayan Forum shelter in Antipolo. “Three girls who are 9 or 10 have been there since they were 5. In the beginning they sat alone and hardly spoke. Next year, two of them spoke but one still didn’t. But the next year, this third girl was already leading the group, she was the life of the party. Suddenly, that light came on. I couldn’t believe it!”
Katie has spent over a decade now in this fight against human trafficking. She is taking it another level with HousekeepingCo. Though her plans to help the tribes have been put on hold, they remain in the backburner and, one of these days, may just find their place in Katie’s scheme of things.