This is something difficult to stomach: Since 2016, 196 Filipino workers have died in Kuwait, and nearly 80 percent of those deaths were due to physical abuse, according to the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration. In 2017, the Philippine embassy in Kuwait registered 6,000 cases of abuse, sexual harassment and rape.
Filipino maids do not only suffer from the cruelty of their employers. In 2014, the Philippine government filed a case against a Kuwaiti employer whose pet lion almost devoured a Filipino maid, resulting in her death. The victim, Lourdes Hingco Abejuela, died from the severity of the wounds she had suffered. She had deep bite wounds on her legs, according to her friend Nieva Edullantes.
In February 2018, President Duterte banned the deployment of Filipino workers to Kuwait following the discovery of Joanna Demafelis’ body in a freezer. In May 2019, Filipino maid Constancia Lago Dayag was killed in Kuwait, and a few months later, another Filipina, Jeanelyn Villavende, was sexually abused and tortured to death by her employer.
The many cases of sexual abuse and suicide, as well as unexplained disappearances of domestic workers in Kuwait angered President Duterte: “What are you doing to my countrymen?” the president asked. “Is there something with your culture? Is there something wrong with your values?”
Duterte decided to make permanent a temporary ban on Filipinos traveling to Kuwait to work. “I would like to address to their patriotism: Come home,” the president said. “No matter how poor we are, we will survive. The economy is doing good, and we are short of workers.”
Kuwait sought to calm the confrontation by sending a delegation to Manila, which asked that hiring of Filipino domestic workers be resumed at Kuwaiti agencies. Tensions cooled after the two nations signed a memorandum of agreement providing additional protection for OFWs in the Gulf state. Satisfied with Kuwait’s conciliatory move, Duterte ordered Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III to lift the ban on the deployment of overseas Filipino workers to Kuwait.
About 268,000 Filipinos currently work in Kuwait, including many domestic helpers. Last year, remittances from Kuwait amounted to around $597 million.
The latest OFW who was killed while employed in Kuwait is Jullebee Ranara. Police said she was killed by the 17-year-old son of her employer, who reportedly raped and burned her before dumping her body in the desert. Over 114 Filipino maids have left Kuwait in less than four days after the brutal killing of Ranara in January, according to news reports.
Following the Ranara murder, the Philippines in February stopped the first-time deployment of domestic workers to Kuwait. Kuwait retaliated by suspending all new visas for Philippine nationals indefinitely, in an escalation of a row between the Gulf state and the Philippines over worker protection and employer rights.
Kuwait went a step further, alleging that officials and staff of the Philippine Embassy in Kuwait have committed violations to diplomatic practices, and demanded that the Philippine government publicly admit these infractions as precondition to lifting the ban on visas to all Filipinos. The Department of Foreign Affairs said they will not bend to those demands. “We will not apologize or formally admit to infractions,” DFA Undersecretary Eduardo de Vega said. (Read, “Kuwait demands PHL to admit ‘violations;’ PHL says ‘No way!,’” in the BusinessMirror, May 30, 2023)
As talks ended up in stalemate, Kuwait stayed the ban on issuance of all kinds of visas to Filipino passport holders. The Department of Migrant Workers also maintained the ban on deployment of first-time Filipino domestic workers to Kuwait.
This could be a blessing in disguise for our OFWs, particularly our hardworking and cheerful domestic workers. Filipino maids are very popular all over the world. You can find many of them in Hong Kong, Singapore, Dubai and other countries. As they are one of the most wanted workers in the world, let’s stop sending them to destinations with a lot of abusive employers. Let’s send them to countries where they are treated well, respected for their work, and truly protected.