Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is under pressure to better protect the country’s millions of overseas workers after the body of a Filipina was discovered dead in a freezer in a Kuwait City apartment on February 6.
Joanna Daniela Demafelis, 29, was first declared missing by her Lebanese and Syrian employers in November last year. Bearing signs of torture, Demafelis’ body had sustained stab wounds to her neck. Her remains were flown back to the Philippines and received by her grieving family on February 16.
Demafelis’ murder, however, is not in isolation. Faced with seven other deaths of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) in Kuwait, the Philippine Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) had already ordered a temporary ban on new Filipinos working in the Gulf nation on January 19.
DOLE is still investigating the circumstances of the deaths of the seven Filipino household services workers, namely Vanessa Karissha Esguerra, Devine Riche Encarnacion, Patrick Sunga, Liezl Truz Hukdong, Mira Luna Juntilla, Marie Fe Saliling Librada, and Arlene Castillo Manzano.
On February 12, Duterte responded by issuing a total ban on migrant workers being sent to Kuwait. With populist panache, he asked Gulf states broadly, “Can I ask you now just to treat my countrymen as human beings with dignity? I do not want to fight with you. We need your help to improve our country.”
According to official statistics, more than half of OFWs worldwide are employed in the Middle East, a rich source of the remittances that help to fuel the Philippine economy. The World Bank and Global Knowledge Partnership on Migration and Development ranked the Philippines as the third largest recipient nation of remittances worldwide, trailing only China and India.
Duterte appealed to the country’s legions of OFWs on the campaign trail, promising to ease their processing times and tackle fraudulent agencies that often act as de facto human trafficking rackets.
Once in office, he has established an Overseas Filipino Bank dedicated to providing OFWs banking services and even promised to establish a government ‘Department of OFWs’ in a speech to migrant workers during an April 2017 visit to Bahrain.
“We congressmen, mayors, even if we are just passing by, we bastards get a salute,” Duterte once said in vowing to crack down on corrupt customs officials who prey on OFWs at Philippine airports. “But poor OFWs are required to go through thorough inspections, running the risk of losing items from their baggage.”
Not all of those populist promises, however, have been kept. Duterte has come under criticism for failing to protect OFWs in Southeast Asia, despite the passage of a non-mandatory consensus on the protection and promotion of migrant worker rights during his leadership of the Asean grouping last year. He had billed the measure as the “centerpiece” of his tenure.
The Kuwait deployment ban, meanwhile, is already coming under heavy fire as more public relations than reform. The total ban on Filipinos taking work in Kuwait initially sowed confusion, as hundreds of OFWs were denied the needed clearances from relevant government agencies including the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration.
The ban has affected at least 300 Filipinos per day, the typical number of OFWs who leave for Kuwait every day. On February 12, the first day of the ban’s implementation, 400 Filipinos were already repatriated from the Gulf nation. Kuwait, meanwhile, has criticized the ban, threatening diplomatic repercussions.
Duterte’s government has so far promised a total of 25,000 pesos (US$482) as financial assistance for each repatriated OFW, a meager sum compared to how much they generally earn in the wealthy Gulf state.
Philippine labor officials, meanwhile, were slammed by Senator Joel Villanueva, chair of the Upper House’s committee on labor, employment and human resources development, for the government’s tardy response to the crisis.
While some view Duterte’s ban as an act of courage, others feel it could do more harm than good in the long term.
Human Rights Watch (HRW), a US-based rights lobby, has argued that the Philippines should instead “work with Kuwait to protect workers rather than ban them from migrating, which is more likely to cause harm than to help.”
HRW maintained that the Philippine government should instead focus efforts on reforming Gulf states’ kafala system – which requires migrant workers to have a sponsor who is responsible for their visas and legal status – to free OFWs from abusive work conditions.
HRW said the system prohibits “workers from leaving or changing jobs without their employers’ consent.” Regina Spöttl, an expert at Amnesty International, another global rights group, said that “through the sponsor law, they [migrant workers] are at the mercy of their employers.”
Migrant-Rights.org, a cause-oriented organization that seeks to promote the rights of migrant workers in the Middle East, contends that sending countries need to fully comprehend how the kafala system works and that it often ties workers to “difficult or impossible situations, including conditions that amount to forced labor.”
Without reform of the kafala system, currently in operation in Lebanon, Bahrain, Iraq, Jordan, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, all home to large communities of OFWs, labor rights activists view Duterte’s kneejerk ban on deployments to Kuwait as more grandstanding than reform.
“What is the use of a deployment ban, if this will not lead to the essential reforms in policy and practice in Kuwait and other destination countries?,” said Rex Verona, East and Southeast Asia coordinator at Migrant Forum for Asia, a labor rights group. “This instant ban is mere grandstanding and the work of a lazy president and government. The instant ban is not part of negotiations for reforms.”
Ellene Sana, executive director for the Center for Migrant Advocacy (CMA), echoed that view. She notes that similar temporary bans imposed on destination countries such as Lebanon, Libya and Iraq proved unsuccessful mainly because the “Workers still went there. Workers will go to where the jobs are.”
HRW notes that when people who are desperate to work faced with bans they nevertheless migrate, but do so through riskier, unregulated routes. The group said bans “leave them exposed to abuse and trafficking and make it more difficult to address abuses.”
Duterte has not made any announcements on whether his government feels the need to reform the kafala system to guarantee OFWs’ security and rights in Gulf nations. It would no doubt be a tricky negotiation with rich host nations reluctant to yield the control they now hold over migrant workers.
However, presidential adviser on OFWs Abdullah Mama-o told lawmakers last week: “We may have all the best laws in this country to protect the interest of our domestic workers working in different countries in the world, but if we still have this kafala system in different parts of the Middle East, we will not have that kind of protection for our workers.”
With the Kuwait ban now fully in effect, a Philippine envoy led by Labor Undersecretary Ciriaco Lagunza III left for Kuwait on February 23 to look into Gulf countries in the hope that “…overseas Filipino workers have sufficient protection.”
But until the kafala system is overhauled and reformed, his diplomatic mission will likely be as inconsequential as previous governments’ short-term deployment bans to upholding the security and rights of the nation’s remittance-earning OFWs.
President Duterte did the right thing!
Abuse of OFW is not new phenomena it has existed for decades, especially in the Middle East. Unlike President Aquino, President Duterte is addressing the problem and that is a step in the right direction. Abuse of Filipinos in the Filipinos in the Philippines should also be stopped. Years ago, we wrote a report to President Aquino and all the Senators pointing out the problems, but no response.
Recently, we sent a complaint to President Duterte Complaint Center, Senator Gordon and other prominent agencies about an individual who made despicable videos in the Philippines, were Filipinos were used as slaves, slaughtered and their liver used to make liver pate. The last video was of Filipino girls put in a cage, forced to do dubious acts and later auction off as slaves. NOTHING has been to stop this video making in the Philippines. The Church is absent, Human rights organizations is absent, where is the feminists? and the police (PNP) even participated in one of the videos that has tens of thousands of views on YouTube!
This is the first time the gov reacts to a death of an overseas worker, do not reverse things, noone ever done this before, and besides, we are lack of people to work for the gov ‘build build build’ masterplan for this administration, so things is just on the right track
I HATE THE PHRASE… AND QUOTE…. "This instant ban is mere grandstanding and the work of a lazy president"…..let us assume we will follow a non grandstanding option as they mention to improve and strengthen the KAFALA system.. can you guarantee the welfare of the House Hold Helper from the abusive act of the Employer….Where are you guys during the term of the past administration where stats showing numbers of abused and distress OFW, WHY you did not CALL and PASSED this BRILLIANT IDEA as you think…and there HE comes…a Probinsyanuh President doing an immediate act of saving lives from the Lions den….still accused of a grandstanding laziness….KSA, Abu Dabi, Bahrain and Dubai and even Kuwait… responded to the strong message of RESPECT….It is very obvious that when things start to do well and rolling….Genious minds will start to pop up……PRESIDENT RODRIGO ROA DUTERTE D30 doing His job well and timely shaking the Middle East of His call of HUMANE RESPECT AND DIGNITY…no other Philippine President doing that message to the World.
This is an example of big government
It can’t be a bad thing when a counry’s leaders speaks up on the abuse of his countrymen overseas and name the country concerned. I don’t recall any Filipino president ever having put the spotlight on the abuse of Filipino workers abroad.
Indonesia, Nepal, Egypt did the ban for their domestic workers, why not the Philippines. There are still other countries they can go and work.The president is doing his best to protect the workers.
The Philippine Government has nothing to do with the KAFALA SYSTEM!… The GCC created this system to slave people who work for them!… to those human rights advocate and migrant groups be brave enought to face these people from GCC!….. Next thing u’ll know you will be in jail the next day!…
The President should not just stop at the OFW bank. There should be an independent Commission of OFW under the Department of Foreign Affairs that report directly to the President. One Division of this Commission should handle legal matters and be responsible for the terms ad conditions of all OFW contracts and also have a complaints and assistance section. The foreign relations section should organise to set up with the authorities of the relevant country for a OFW ‘dispute resolution and arbitration administrative tribunal’ with representatives from the employer country foreign affairs, the Philippines embassy and a 3rd from the either the U.S. or British or French embassy. What we want is Philippine officials protecting OFW before they go overseas, when they are overseas and bringing them back safely from overseas. Yes, when one is poor one has to sweat and toil for a living. But every OFW is entitled to have his or her dignity and self esteem and honour rotected and safeguarded by its President and Government. And these values are more important than dirty money working like animals and being raped and killed at will.
Lately there have been some bad employers out there not just in the Middle East but in Singapore, HK, Malaysia as well. Our Government must even if required make a big publicity out of these misdeeds so that the good people and Government of the countries with these bad employers get to hear about these bad employers among their people.
President Duterte is the only president of Our country.who work hard and care.to.Us. even wht other t.v network distroy him they will not succeed because we know what and who Our beloved President.
And we knew whose behind the negative propaganda agains our president they are the people who dont want that the.lower class in society.in Philippines can improve their life.the arethose corrupt, shameless people in Our country who want to suck the peoples money
the ban should be selective ,,not all pinoys working in kuwait are abused ..the medical and paramedical workers are not abused .. these abuses happen not only in kuwait, even in some asian countries and in europe some domestics are still abused….
Anna Liel Amurao as a writer you have less knowledge and ignorant of islamic rules.. Duterte had been in Malacanang for less than 2 years and you are tongue lashing him like a self proclaim expert in OFWs in the middle east. You are demanding so much from him.
You lack knowledge about Islam and its tradition. Do you know about the laws of "khulwa?" this is a prohibition of 2 opposite sex who are not a mahram (or your direct blood relatives) to be mingling together in a secluded or private places. Severe punishment of lashing or whipping is usually bestowed to those caught doing this acts.
So, if you are sending housemaid to arab countries, do you think as a Filipina you are exempted from this rules? Never. You are made to stay inside the household of the strangers and you become a prey to their male relajutives. They could enter your rooms, that is, if you have a room in their households, as sometimes you are made to sleep in the locker or in the kitchen or toilets.
In short you are already breaking the "rules of khulwa" once you enter their residence.
Hiring you as a housemaid from the country, is like buying a slave, whom they can kill, sell, rape or abuse. No wonder they are accepting this tradition because of this mentality. Duterte cannot do anything about this, except total ban of women housemaid in Arab countries. Please research more before pointing fingers on the president, and making lots of blah blah out of ignorance.
Arab countries ban their women to work as domestic helper because they knows, its against the laws of Islam.
Danilo Nietes Arangale
Surely that is my point that if we cannot protect our OFW in a particular country by setting up the right protective regime for them then we shouldn’t allow our citizens to work there. They go there’ve voluntarily at their own peril!
But better still we should fast track the economic development within the Philippines so that it can catch up with the other ASEAN economic tigers.
Get rid of the rampant corruption, drug dealing and take measures to cut down the disparity between have and have-nots.
All our ‘qualified’ people having to seek work overseas! We need to create jobs within the Philippines!
U r stranger to me but ur opinion is right, u struck the target in the middle of the eye. Only the duterte administration guaranted and giving attention to the welfare of d OFW’s.
Commission on human rights = irresponsible
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