It took the Joanna Demafelis case to make the Kuwait and the Philippine governments act decisively on the problems of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) in that country. Demafelis had disappeared over a year ago with no one outside her family apparently concerned about her – until last February 9 when President Duterte said her battered body had been discovered in a freezer in the abandoned apartment of her former employers, a Lebanese and his Syrian wife.
The President ordered a stop to further deployment of OFWs in Kuwait and offered transportation assistance to all OFWs wishing to return home from Kuwait. Thousands of Filipina OFWs who had been working as house helpers like Joanna returned home. The Kuwait government assured it would find those responsible for her death and a few days later announced the arrest in Syria of Joanna’s former employers.
There are about 180,000 OFWs in Kuwait – mostly house helpers like Joanna but also professionals like doctors, engineers, teachers, and seamen. A much bigger group of Filipino workers are in Saudi Arabia – 1.2 million – many in its oil fields, medicine, and service industries, but also as household helpers. This week, Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) Undersecretary for Strategic Communication and Research Ernesto Abella said the DFA is now conducting an inventory of Filipina household helpers in Saudi Arabia in the wake of reports of a “maid trade” in that country.
“We received reports that certain families and employees are in the habit of trading their household helpers among families,” Labor Secretary Bello III said. “Under the kafala or sponsorship system, the Arab sponsor-employee has control over the mobility of the migrant worker who is thus placed at the mercy of his employer.”
The findings of government teams now in Saudi Arabia and other countries in the Middle East will be a reliable basis for amending existing labor agreements, Secretary Bello said. “The minimum demand of our President is that we will only deploy in countries where our workers are properly and effectively protected.”
We welcome this systematic effort to look into the conditions of work of our OFWs in various countries. For too long, our OFWs have been left largely on their own, submitting to degrading conditions in their desperate search for work.
All this, we hope, is about to change. The case of Joanna Demafelis. whose body was found in a freezer over a year after she was reported missing by her family, has so angered our people and our officials that President Duterte has now called for a country-by-country study to look into our OFWs’ conditions of work.
When the killings in Kuwait first came to light, President Duterte told Kuwait and other Middle East countries: “We are poor, we may need your help, but we will not do it at the expense of the dignity of the Filipino.” He has now similarly declared to Saudi Arabia and to other nations that the Philippines will now send workers only where they are effectively protected.