By Vanne Elaine Terrazola
Senators on Wednesday asked government officials why the government continued with the deployment of Filipino workers to Kuwait, despite the mounting number of deaths and abuses prior to the discovery of 29-year-old Joanna Daniella Demafelis in a freezer in the Gulf state.
This transpired at a Senate Committee on Labor, Employment and Human Resources Development hearing on the deaths of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) Wednesday, where senators also questioned the manner by which they implemented existing laws of the protection of OFWs.
The Philippine government has implemented a total deployment ban of all Filipino workers to Kuwait following the discovery of a dead Demafelis in an apartment in the said country, where she was kept for more than year. Earlier, President Duterte had disallowed the deployment of household workers due to the deaths of seven Filipina women in the same country.
But Senator Joel Villanueva, Senate Labor Committee chairman, said the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) should have banned the deployment of Filipino workers in the said Gulf state years ago.
Villanueva said there had been 185 OFW deaths in Kuwait from 2016 to 2017 — a figure which, he said, should have raised a red flag in sending Filipino workers in the Gulf state.
“Why did the DOLE not impose the ban sooner? Bakit ngayon lang (Why only now)?” Villanueva asked.
Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) administrator Hans Leo Cacdac, later, corrected the data and said 196 Filipinos actually died in the last three years, with 79 percent of them dying of “natural cause.”
Cacdac admitted before the Senate panel that the number has significantly increased last year.
Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) Undersecretary Ernesto Abella, meanwhile, said, that the Kuwait Embassy had reported 6,000 cases of OFW abuses such as maltreatment, deprivation, and sexual slavery, in 2017. He described it as a “deep-seated” problem.
Senator Franklin Drilon, meanwhile, said the deaths of OFWs could have been prevented with the proper implementation of Republic Act 10022 or the Migrant Workers and Overseas Filipino Workers Act of 1995.
The law, he said, mandates that the deployment of OFWs should only be in countries that have existing labor laws or are signatories to international conventions or biltaeral agreements protecting migrant workers.
Kuwait, however, has not ratified and is not a signatory of any conventions pertaining to the protection of migrant workers, such as the ILO Convention 189 on domestic workers’ protection, the 2003 International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families, and the 1975 Convention concerning Migrations in Abusive Conditions and the Promotions of Equality of Opportunity and Treatment of Migrant Workers.
DOLE Secretary Silvestre Bello III told senators that Kuwait has “refused” to sign the draft memorandum of understanding with the Philippines, citing the Gulf State’s supposed disagreement over the working hours, among other conditions, in the deal.
Drilon also noted the lack of a information system for OFWs which is among the provisions of the RA 10022.He said this could have helped in tracing the status OFWs abroad.
“The law is very detailed, very clear. If this was implemented, we won’t be confronted wth this kind of problem. we have not done anything until this happened,” Drilon said, referring to Demafilis’ death.
Despite Kuwait’s non-signing of treaties, the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) has approved the deployment of OFWs to the said country.
POEA Administrator Bernard Olalia explained this was because the DFA has certified the country as “labor-compliant.”
Abella, in response, clarified that the agency “refused” to rate the country as fully-compliant, but only “partially-compliant” as its government continues to “entertain” cases that the Philippines has been filing.
“So in a sense, we can’t consider them as absolutely non-compliant,” Abella said.
Officials also confirmed the existence of the “kafala”, or the sponsorship system in the Middle East.
The kafala system, Abella said, is a policy “unique” among Middle East countries which allows sponsor to become the “owners” of household workers.
Presidential adviser on OFW and Muslim Concern Abdullah Mamao added this allowed employers to hold their workers’ passports, phones, and even lock their helpers in rooms.
When Villanuave asked if OFWs are ever informed about this policy, Bello said he doubted this, even as they are required to go through six-hour pre-departure seminars. He said he was looking at requiring reruitement agencies to put up training centers to fully teach OFWs on the culture of the country they will go to.
Bello, at the hearing, assured that they were providing the proper assistance to the family of Demafelis, whom he called a “hero.”
Demafelis, a household worker in Kuwait, was discovered in a freezer more than year after her employers left their apartment.
The DOLE chief said they have given the bereaved relatives at least P600,000 to cover the death benefit and livelihood assistance. He said the government will also help in finishing the house which Demafelis started for her family in Iloilo.
Sen. Emmanuel Pacquiao, who became emotional in recalling the plight of OFWs, vowed to held redeem the pawned lot of the Demafelis family.
Meanwhile, Bello said the agencies are set to hold job fairs for OFWs to provide them jobs in construction, which is much-needed in the government’s “Build, Build, Build” programs.