The Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) on Wednesday said that the government is likely to extend the deployment ban of overseas Filipino workers (OFW) to Kuwait up to March until a new bilateral migrant workers’ pact is signed between the two countries.
At a news briefing, Labor Secretary Silvestre H. Bello III announced the creation of a technical working group (TWG) tasked to negotiate and draft a new memorandum of agreement (MOU) between the Philippines and Kuwait. The TWG will be leaving for Kuwait on February 28.
The MOU in question has already been pending for two years after the Kuwaiti government reportedly failed to act on its approval.
Bello said the signing of the proposed agreement will be among their considerations for lifting the deployment restriction for newly hired Filipinos bound to Kuwait.
“Once we sign it [the MOU], this may provide the safety valves that will protect our OFWs in Kuwait. And, as soon as we are assured of their safety, this may be a good reason to lift the total deployment ban. But I am not saying it is automatic,” Bello said.
DOLE Undersecretary and TWG head Claro A. Arellano said they will be pushing for the inclusion of additional provisions on the MOU to further protect the welfare of OFWs in Kuwait.
These provisions include allowing OFWs in Kuwait to use their cell phones and have their passports deposited at the Philippine Overseas Labor Office (Polo) or the Philippines embassy.
Many OFWs are unable to leave their abusive employers abroad, since their passports and cell phones are traditionally confiscated by most of their employers.
“Hopefully, by next week, we will be able to finalize the memorandum of agreement so that, during the second week of March, there will already be a signing between the Kuwaiti government and Philippine government,” Arellano said.
The DOLE said it is mulling over the same requirement for OFWs in other countries to extend the same level of protection, particularly with regards to their passports.
“The passport is owned by the Philippine government. Their work permit is already enough for them to continue to roam and perform their business. Depositing the passport to the embassy or Polo is a prerogative of the worker and the government,” Labor Undersecretary Ciriaco A. Lagunzad III said.
The DOLE imposed the total deployment ban to Kuwait on February 12 pursuant to an order issued by President Duterte.
He ordered the ban and the repatriation of distressed OFWs from Kuwait following the recovery of the remains of a Filipina household service worker Joanna Demafelis from the freezer in her employers’ home earlier this month.
On Wednesday several OFWs, who were displaced because of the ban, approached Bello to appeal for the resumption of the deployment in Kuwait, but the labor chief maintained the ban is necessary for the protection of the over 200,000 OFWs in Kuwait.
In response to the ban, the Kuwaiti government declared an amnesty program to allow thousands of “irregular” OFWs in their jurisdiction to be repatriated. The amnesty program was supposed to end today (February 22), but the Kuwaiti government opted to extend it until April 22.
“We are satisfied with the reaction of the Kuwaiti government…. This is an indication that the decision of our President to declare a total deployment ban is working positively in our favor,” Bello said.
Bello said that, initially, only 2,500 OFWs availed themselves of their repatriation program, but he said this has now grown to 6,000.
Meanwhile, the DOLE also announced its “bold steps” to prevent other OFWs from the suffering the gruesome fate of Demafelis.
Bello announced the creation of a centralized command center, which will be temporarily housed in the DOLE main office in Intramuros, Manila, that will address the processing of claims and complaints of OFWs.
Overseas Workers Welfare Administration Administrator Hans J. Cacdac said the command center will be manned by personnel from the DOLE, Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) and OWWA.
Cacdac said among the cases they are now monitoring is that of Norisa Manambit, reportedly in a comatose state in Kuwait.
“We already instructed our welfare officer on site…to visit her in the hospital. As we speak, our OWWA office is traveling to the residence of the family to assure them of our assistance,” Cacdac said.
Bello also deployed a team, headed by Lagunzad, to asses the status of the OFWs in Qatar, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait and further boost their protection.
“We are planning to launch a Web-based alert system [in Kuwait] to give our citizens there to allow them to get help by pressing an alert button,” Lagunzad said.
Bello also recalled that the current labor attaché and assistant labor attaché in Kuwait failed to promptly act on the case of Demafelis.
“Remember, the sibling of Joanna reported she was missing as early as January 17, 2017. There was inaction from their part. They did not even report it to us,” Bello said.
Bello also ordered the POEA to impose sanctions against 11 Philippine recruitment agencies, which were found guilty of “recruitment violations” in deploying OFWs to Kuwait.
“We are sickened by the tragic fate that befell Joanna Demafelis…. This government is not taking this incident sitting down,” Bello said. “Today, we are giving more vigor to the campaign against trafficking, and we are declaring war against the abuse of our Filipino migrant heroes.”