Filipino domestic worker Arlene struggled to handle her employer's abusive wife. Photo: iStock
Filipino domestic worker Arlene struggled to handle her employer's abusive wife. Photo: iStock

If you have the stomach for it, do a search for “abused maids.” A random sample of headlines: “Six out of 10 maids in Singapore are exploited: Survey.” “Indonesia mulls ban on sending maids to Malaysia after abuse case.” “Help for Sri Lanka’s abused maids.” “Cambodian maid abused and treated as a slave for 13 years.” “Maid: ‘How my boss threatened me with acid in Oman.” “Torture, abuse and and harassment: ex-housemaids describe horrors of working in Saudi Arabia.”

And the chart-topper, “Body of Filipino maid found inside freezer in Kuwait.”

Anyone who has lived in a country or territory that relies heavily on foreign domestic workers has heard the stories, rarely as bad as the ones listed above, but still enough to wonder how some humans can be so inhuman to people whose only fault was being born poor.

But times may be changing. Exploited workers are no longer forced to live alone in their misery, or be confined to sharing their grievances with other workers largely in the same boat, or deal with uncaring authorities.

Now there is the Internet, and more and more workers are speaking out on social media. Societies that shrug at reports of abuse and do nothing are being shamed in front of the world. One country that has long been a prime exporter of workers – not just maids, but fishermen, ship workers and others – has banned deployment of its people to one of the worst-offending countries, and is considering expanding the ban to other purveyors of abuse.

Some jurisdictions such as Hong Kong have for years made some effort to punish maid abusers, occasionally with harsh jail terms and substantial monetary compensation orders, but only in the most egregious cases. Others, such as Kuwait and other Middle Eastern countries, have allowed their privileged citizens to treat imported workers like chattel.

The case of Joanna Demafelis, a murdered Filipino, has gone furthest in stirring international shame over the treatment of foreign maids, along with a second fatal case that came to light around the same time, that of Adelina Sau, a young Indonesian woman.

Demafelis, a woman in her 20s, belonged to a family in the Philippine region of Eastern Visayas whose home and livelihood were destroyed by Super Typhoon Haiyan in late 2013. Like many young Filipinos, she sought work overseas to support her family. In May 2014, she boarded a plane to Kuwait.

She would not return alive.

Tales of abuse, exploitation, overwork, underpay, even beatings and deaths were told. But few media reported them, and the viciousness continued

The small Gulf state of Kuwait, enriched by massive oil resources, has attracted hordes of foreign domestic workers over the years, and as more young women poured into the country, horror stories poured back out. Tales of abuse, exploitation, overwork, underpay, even beatings and deaths were told. But few media reported them, and the viciousness continued.

Even when maids were not physically abused, they suffered in other ways. Many Middle Eastern countries including Kuwait use a sponsorship system called kafala to import and employ foreign workers, which in effect strips expatriates of nearly all of their rights and gives near-total control to their employers.

Demafelis’ family says she knew the risks, but the promise of earning enough money to help them recover from Haiyan’s destruction persuaded her to go to Kuwait. But by September 2016, the family lost contact with her. They appealed to the Philippine government for help locating her, but she had vanished without a trace.

Until early this year, when her dead body was found jammed inside a freezer in an abandoned apartment.

It was the last straw for the Filipino people, who for decades had put up with having to send their young into potentially dangerous situations abroad to prop up an economy that had become too reliant on overseas remittances and failed to develop a robust indigenous economic system. Grief and outrage alike flooded social media, and traditional media too took up the cause.

The administration of populist President Rodrigo Duterte, who had been elected on a law-and-order platform, finally took action. It banned the deployment of Filipino workers to Kuwait.

The Kuwaiti government responded quickly – not, evidently, out of shame but out of necessity, panicked by the possibility of the inflow of Filipino maids drying up – and began negotiating with Manila on establishing protections for Filipinos working in the country. Those talks are ongoing.

At around the same time as the Kuwaitis were shopping for a wooden crate to ship Joanna Demafelis’ remains home, some people in the Malaysian state of Penang noticed something odd in their neighborhood. A foreign woman barely out of her teens had been sleeping outside on a porch with a Rottweiler. This turned out to be Adelina Sau.

Alerted to the young woman’s plight, a Malaysian support group for migrant workers went to the scene and were shocked at what they saw. Adelina’s face was swollen and her body covered with raw wounds. She was taken to a hospital but it was too late; she died of multiple organ failure.

Dead. At 20.

Subsequent investigation found that Adelina had not just been the victim of inhuman abuse by her employers, but had evidently been shipped to Indonesia from her village in East Nusa Tenggara province by human traffickers.

Taking a page out of the Duterte administration’s book, the Indonesian government – shocked, shocked! – by the Adelina Sau case, threatened to ban deployment of its people to work in Malaysia. Nothing has come of it so far. So the story, and others like it, continues.

It is tempting to argue, as suggested high in this article, that exposure by social media of the travesty of abuse – human trafficking, unscrupulous recruiters, official negligence or outright malfeasance, racism, physical cruelty, impunity – will, if not bring it to an end, at least reduce the frequency and severity of such crimes against humanity. However, there is little evidence to support such a hope so far.

The so-called power of social media is actually very limited. ‘Netizens’ generally function within their own bubbles and echo chambers – reports of abuse, even the tiny number that ‘go viral,’ rarely go far or last long

There are many reasons for this. First of all, the so-called power of social media is actually very limited. “Netizens” generally function within their own bubbles and echo chambers – reports of abuse, even the tiny number that “go viral,” rarely go far or last long.

Joanna Demafelis’ story gained a little attention in global media partly because it eventually became linked to Rodrigo Duterte, who is in the glare of the world spotlight for his murderous “war on drugs,” and partly because the Philippines is a populous country with vibrant English-language mainstream media.

But an Internet search will find very few mentions of the Demafelis story by media outside the Philippines, Asia Times being one of the few exceptions. And poor Adelina Sau? She is almost totally forgotten outside her little village in Indonesia’s far south.

Another reason that the silence persists is the fact that like so many of the world’s ills, worker abuse is only a symptom of wider-reaching diseases. One is the chronically dysfunctional global economic system that perpetuates not only widening wealth gaps in individual countries, but the parallel phenomenon between rich countries and poor countries, what used to be called the “North-South divide.”

Yet another reason, or excuse, may be endemic racism in some cultures, or something in human nature that makes us want to tread on the already downtrodden, perhaps to ease our fears of our own vulnerability and assure ourselves of our superiority, of our imaginary shields against becoming “like them.”

But that’s beyond the scope of this humble article. It’s something for the philosophers to mull as the suffering drags on.

David Simmons is a Canadian journalist based in Thailand. He has worked for newspapers and news websites in four countries, three of them in Asia. He holds a bachelor's degree in linguistics from the University of British Columbia and a diploma in journalism from Langara College in Vancouver.

One reply on “Social media and the global tragedy of migrant worker abuse”

Comments are closed.