Dubai: The Philippines’ “total ban” on the deployment of their citizens to Kuwait misses the point, a migrants advocate group said, even as the move has stirred up fear among OFWs in the oil-rich country.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s order to ban the deployment of Filipinos to Kuwait kicked off on Monday, February 12, blocking the travel of some 300 Filipino workers flying each day to the Gulf nation.
Many Filipinos hailed the ban as a sign of Duterte’s “strong leadership”, while others riled against the move as mere "grandstanding".
The ban hogged the headlines and came days after the horrific discovery of a Filipina housemaid’s body in a freezer inside an abandoned apartment in Hawalli, outside Kuwait City.
Filipina housemaid Joanna Daniela Demafelis lost contact with her family since May 2016. Manila authorities started looking for her in Kuwait since then, but gave up after the agency that recruited her to the Gulf country closed down. A Filipina witness claimed that Demafelis had told her that the former's employers were hurting her and her salary was delayed. Demafelis' body was found in a freezer and was identified through DNA test. — Facebook
However, even Filipino diplomats admit that the vast majority of Filipinos in Kuwait are doing fine and are sought after by employers.
And despite Duterte’s threat of a ban last week, numerous jobs are still on offer in Kuwait specifically looking for Filipinos.
A member of the “Pilipino sa Kuwait” (PSK) Facebook group posted an urgent message: “Required for a Lebanese family a nanny/helper from 7am till 7:30pm preferred Philippino (sic) with experience to start immediately. Salmiya block 4. Slaray 150KD. Please call …. If anyone can assist! Thank you.”
On Monday, the ban stirred up panic among Kuwait-based Filipino workers as well as their relatives back home.
PSK member Jhonas Villarba has posted a message on the same group asking for help for his wife Lovelyn, who works as a housemaid.
Other Filipinos used the group to rile against Philippine embassy staff, especially about dropped calls.
A screenshot of messages posted on the Pilipino sa Kuwait group. — Facebook
Barbie, a member of the PSK, wrote in text-speak in Tagalog: “You call the Philippines embassy 10 times, no one picks up the phone. That’s why many of us die here. Emergency calls are never answered. That’s why those who run away from their employers end up on the streets, fall into the wrong hands… to men. No choice because no one helps.”
Total or partial?
The language used — "total ban" — widely reported by the Philippine media, caught numerous Kuwait-based OFWs taking a holiday in the Philippines offguard.
Until late Monday, it was not clear if the ban covers vacationing skilled Filipino workers, too. A total ban on deployment would scuttle the livelihood of many OFWs, many of them have taken out loans to be able to leave for work overseas.
Philippine Ambassador to Kuwait Renato Villa, in an interview on Monday, said: "From what I understand, 'total ban' is like Alert Level 4 — based on our system of alert levels. Under this level, it means even those who are spending their annual vacation in the Philippines will no longer be allowed to return to their worksite, wherever that is."
Villa said: "The only thing we can do now is to seek clarification from our Department of Labor and Employment and let them know the concerns, especially of our skilled workers (in Kuwait)."
But if only a partial ban is adopted, "total ban" turns to smoke.
Pacquiao joins the fray
Meanwhile, top politicians including boxer Manny Pacquio, a member of the Philippine Senate, pounced on the frozen body story.
Pacquiao was quoted by Manila's GMA TV network as saying he will be satisfied if the death penalty is imposed on the abusive Kuwaiti employers.
However, the employers of the Filipina whose chopped-off body was reportedly frozen are not Kuwaitis: the man is Lebanese and the wife a Syrian.
The couple had reportedly absconded from Kuwait leaving a trail of bounced-cheque cases.
Kuwaiti authorities are now working with Interpol to track the employers of Filipina Joanna Daniela Demafelis, 29, whose body was found in the freezer.
Demafelis' kin in Iloilo last heard from her in late 2016, around the time the man and his wife reportedly flew out of Kuwait.
Rex Varona of the Migrant Forum for Asia (MFA), a non-government organization, dismissed Pacquio’s call as mere “grandstanding.”
“Fact #1: When Pacquiao was the Vice Chairman of the Committee on OFW Affairs of the past Congress (chaired by ex-Congressman Walden Bello), he had zero or next-to-zero attendance in committee meetings.”
Varona added: “In the various committee hearings held to discuss what can be done to curb abusive recruiters, employers, and for the rape or murder victims among OFWs, Pacquiao was absent. Now, you (Pacquaio) are ranting about death penalty.”
MFA, which works with domestic workers from different Asian countries, also works with the UN Development Program (UNDP) and the International Organisation for Migration.
The group is helping set up OFW cooperatives, including the first cooperative of Filipina domestic workers recognized by the Hong Kong government set up nine years ago.
Not the first time
It’s not the first time the Manila has slapped a deployment ban. Many Filipinos escaping poverty at home, however, have always found a way around it, often with the help of job agents and employers.
While the move curbed Filipinos’ deployment to Iraq, defence contractors and private Iraqi companies have found an easy way around the ban — by recruiting Filipino workers for all sort of jobs through other countries.
In imposing the February 12 ban, Duterte cited cases of abuse and maltreatment, including a high-profile case of a Filipina domestic helper committing suicide.
“The ban will simply stop the deployment of 300 OFWs to Kuwait each day,” said Varona.
Kuwait is home to more than 250,000 Filipino expatriates, according to recent estimates, the third-largest in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) region, after Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
“The OFWs who are still there are vulnerable. Where is (President Rodrigo) Duterte, (Senator Manny) Pacquiao, (Foreign Secretary) Allan Cayetano, and (Labour Secretary Silvestre) Bello in the process of the UN, International Labour Organisation, the Abu Dhabi Dialogue, Colombo Process, and bilateral negotiations with the Gulf and other countries in the Middle East?”
“These are the venues where reforms are being forged to protect OFWs, like the reforms adopted in the UAE, Bahrain, Jordan, etc. They (officials) are just not there,” said Varona.
“Fact #2: What is the use of a deployment ban, if this will not lead to the essential reforms in policy and practice in Kuwait and other destination countries? This instant ban is a mere grandstanding and the work of a lazy (Philippine) president and government. The instant ban is not part of negotiations for reforms.”
Duterte’s call for host countries to respect the Filipina household workers’ human rights has now become “laughable” too, due to the Philippine strongman’s disdain for the human rights of his own people — especially the poor and small fries merely suspected of being part of drugs trade.
Respect for human rights
“The Philippine has no leverage and it looks laughable for Duterte to say ‘respect human rights of OFWs’, or that ‘OFWs are not slaves’. For decades, the migrant advocates, domestic worker organisations had been working for these in the destination countries, alongside employers at recruiters.”
“On the other hand, Duterte says ‘To hell with the UN’, ‘To hell with human rights’, besides the consistent rape at sexist jokes he spews out against women. What credibility does the Philippines have now to ask for the protection of human rights ng Filipino domestic workers? You reap what you sow.”
“So I beg to disagree with Duterte, Pacquiao, Cayetano, Secretary Bello that their laughable grandstanding and lazy imposition of ban without leveraging negotiation for reforms — shows ‘strong leadership’. These are all hollow and will not end the abuse, rape, exploitation of OFWs.”
Some 800 overseas Filipino workers die and sent home in caskets each year. Most of them die of natural causes.