The tragic story of Joanna Daniela Demafelis makes the blood boil. The young woman traveled to Kuwait in 2014 to help her family at home make ends meet. With her earnings as a domestic helper, she promised to repair the family house and send her younger siblings to school. For the first three months, according to her folks, Demafelis was in constant contact with them; in 2016, she told her parents she intended to renew her contract for another year.
And then word from her grew sparse, until all communications stopped. In February 2017 the family sought the help of the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration to find out what had happened to her. The local recruitment agency that sent Demafelis to Kuwait proved to be of no help during the search because it had since closed down.
Last week, the Demafelis family’s long and frantic search ended with the heartrending news that their daughter had been found dead, her body stuffed in a freezer in an abandoned apartment in the Al Shaab area of Kuwait. While Kuwaiti authorities have yet to officially rule on the cause of death, initial investigation reportedly indicates that Demafelis may have been strangled and tortured, and that her body had been kept in the freezer for over a year.
Demafelis’ employer, Nader Essam Assaf, is missing and is said to have hightailed it back to his native Lebanon, along with his wife. On top of his suspected involvement in Demafelis’ death, Assaf is also wanted for cases related to falsified checks.
Demafelis would have turned 30 in June.
So prevalent have been reports of maltreatment of overseas Filipino workers coming out of Kuwait that in January, on orders of President Duterte, the Department of Labor and Employment suspended OFW deployment to that country. On top of Demafelis’ gruesome case, seven more deaths of Filipino workers are being investigated by the labor department. Mr. Duterte himself, at a media briefing in Davao, said as many as 120 Filipinos died in Kuwait last year. Given that, according to Undersecretary Sarah Lou Arriola of the Department of Foreign Affairs, 260,000 Filipinos are working in Kuwait, 170,000 of them as domestic workers, the incidences of abuse and mistreatment among their ranks are probably more widespread than official reports suggest.
The labor department says it is finalizing the order imposing a total ban on the deployment of domestic workers to Kuwait, while a first batch of 800 are being repatriated back home. The President has also met with Kuwaiti Ambassador Saleh Ahmad Althwaikh to express the Philippine government’s grave concern at what Mr. Duterte has called “the inhuman treatment” of Filipino workers in Kuwait.
The Philippines’ labor export policy has spawned such problems as the brutal treatment of OFWs in certain countries. Many an OFW dreaming of a better life for family members left behind has come home in a box, and heartbreaking scenes at the airport have become commonplace. Then there are the social costs, in which a generation of children has grown up beyond a mother’s embrace. But if a total ban is enforced and Kuwait is eventually emptied of its hundreds of thousands of OFWs at the end of their contracts, where will these workers go?
The government says it is looking at deploying them to another country: China. Apparently, the President’s fulsome embrace of the Philippines’ giant neighbor extends beyond paying obeisance to Beijing in exchange for promised aid and looking the other way while it gobbles up Philippine territory in the South China Sea. Malacañang is also now considering China—which has never been a top destination for Filipino labor—as an alternative market for OFWs displaced from the Middle East.
Is this a well-thought-out policy, let alone a safe option, at a time when relations between the peoples of the two countries may be particularly sensitive given the ongoing territory dispute? How carefully has this policy pivot been considered? Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello says a bilateral agreement with China is being worked out covering the possible deployment of Filipino workers to that country. The public needs to be able to look closely at this promised accord before OFW families can feel any sense of assurance that China—as much, if not more, an authoritarian country as Kuwait—will be a safer, more welcoming workplace for them.
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