Protecting our OFWs

The death of a Filipina maid whose body was found stuffed in a freezer in Kuwait has ignited nationwide outrage that prompted President Duterte to ban the deployment of Filipino workers to the Gulf state. Saying he is ready to take drastic steps to protect Filipinos working abroad, the President offered free flights home to about 10,000 Filipinos who had overstayed their visa in Kuwait.

Reports said the body of Joanna Demafelis was found on February 6 in a Kuwait City apartment that had reportedly been abandoned for more than a year. Her body reportedly bore torture marks, and there were indications she was strangled.

Duterte justified his bold decision to stop deployment to Kuwait, saying: “The Filipino is no slave to anyone, anywhere and everywhere. Every unlawful physical injury that is inflicted on an overseas Filipino worker is an injury I personally bear as the head of this republic.”

Foreign Secretary Alan Peter S. Cayetano said Kuwait had expressed outrage over Demafelis’s death and promised do everything it could to render justice. This developed after the Philippines lodged a protest over Demafelis’s case and at least six other recent deaths, mostly of Filipino housemaids in Kuwait. Cayetano said the Philippine embassy should be given access to investigations by Kuwaiti authorities.

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A few days after the deployment ban was announced, Cayetano broke the news about the arrest in Lebanon of Demafelis’s employer. Nader Essam Assaf is now reportedly in the custody of Kuwait authorities, but his Syrian wife, who is also a suspect in Demafelis’s death, remains at large.

The President earlier said he did not want a quarrel with Kuwait, but warned he may resort to drastic steps, such as a complete ban on the deployment of Filipino workers, if Kuwait fails to safeguard and protect Filipinos working there. Kuwait responded and agreed to open labor negotiations with the government.

Cayetano said the government is pushing for a labor pact with Kuwait that would provide strong guarantees on the safety and welfare of Filipino household service workers. He said: “President Duterte wants this agreement to be different from the other agreements we signed with other countries by making sure that whatever is written there will translate into real, actionable measures that will protect our maids from exploitation and abuse.”

Prior to this, the Philippines has already secured the commitment of Kuwait on several matters for Filipina maids, including the minimum monthly salary of 120 Kuwaiti dinar (around P20,000); rest hours of at least eight hours per day; possession of their passports and mobile phones; and limiting their work to only one household.

As we go to press, an eight-member Kuwaiti delegation has confirmed arrival in Manila on March 15 and 16 for the proposed “Agreement on Domestic Workers’ Recruitment, Employment, and Protection Between the Government of the Republic of the Philippines and the Government of the State of Kuwait.”

Reports said Ambassador Ghanim Saqer Al-Ghanim, assistant minister for legal affairs of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, would lead the Kuwaiti delegation that would participate in the negotiations. Other members of the Kuwaiti panel are from the Residence Affairs Department of the Ministry of Interior and the Public Authority for Manpower of the Ministry of Labor.

We hope that the two sides will be able to craft a labor pact that will ensure the safety and well-being of our household service workers in Kuwait. The Philippine government must ensure that Filipina maids abroad are not exposed to violenceexploitation and sexual harassment of their employers.

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Turning Points 2018