FILIPINO household workers in Kuwait suffer harsh working conditions under the Gulf State’s so-called kafala system, officials said on Wednesday.
Foreign Affairs Undersecretary Ernesto Abella and Presidential Adviser on Overseas Filipino Workers Abdullah Mama-o confirmed that domestic workers in Kuwait are treated like “slaves” by their employers.
The two officials testified during the Senate inquiry on the abuse and deaths of OFWs in Kuwait.
Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) Officer-in-Charge Hans Leo Cacdac said 196 Filipino workers died in Kuwait since 2016. Almost 79 percent of the victims died due to physical abuse.
Sen. Joel Villanueva, chairman of the Senate Committee on Labor and Employment, on Wednesday conducted a public hearing on the increasing number of OFWs being abused in Kuwait.
Senators Juan Edgardo Angara, Nancy Binay, Sherwin Gatchalian, Grace Poe, Emmanuel Pacquiao, Cynthia Villar and Villanueva filed their respective resolutions seeking a probe on the abuses committed against OFWs.
They also sought an inquiry on the deployment ban ordered by President Rodrigo Duterte to Kuwait following the death of Joanna Demafelis, whose body was found in a freezer in an abandoned apartment in Al Shaab area. Her frozen body bore torture marks.
“In this kafala system, the employer controls the passport of the worker. The worker is beholden to him. He locks the house. He locks the room. They cannot go out of the building. Everything is locked when the employer is out,” Mama-o said.
“We should support the ban signed by the President because it would be a big leverage to signing a bilateral agreement (with Kuwait),” he added.
Mama-o said skilled workers are not covered by kafala system.
Abella said Kuwait’s sponsorship system is unique because the sponsor “becomes the owner of the service worker in the concept of slavery or sexual slavery.” He noted that in 2017, the Philippine embassy in Kuwait recorded 6,000 abuses, including sexual abuse and rape.
Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello 3rd is set to fly to Kuwait on February 28 to meet with his Kuwaiti counterpart to form a technical working group (TWG) to finalize a memorandum of understanding (MoU) between the two countries with regard to the protection of the rights and welfare of OFWs in the Arab nation.
He noted that the Philippine government had forwarded the MoU document to the Kuwait government “more than two years ago.”
“We have a copy of the draft MoU which they refuse to sign. Suddenly, the Kuwaiti Ambassador (to Manila) came to me twice to form a technical working group to discuss it,” Bello told the senators.
Asked by Pacquiao why the Kuwait government refused to sign the MOU, Bello said: “They don’t want the provisions prohibiting them to keep the OFWs’ passport, prohibiting unlimited working hours. Ayaw nila (They reject it).”
“Under the MOU, the OFWs are supposed to be allowed to own a cellphone. Ayaw nila eh (They opposed it),” Bello said.
Villanueva lamented that under kafala system, migrant workers cannot legally leave the country without the consent of their employers.
“The kafala system has facilitated the abusive practice of altering the terms of employment contract of migrant workers or taking their passports and identifications as leverage,” Villanueva said.
Based on the Philippine Overseas Labor Office (POLO) records, five to seven Filipino household workers run to POLO shelters daily to seek refuge from abusive employers.
Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon urged the government to strictly implement the Migrant Workers and Overseas Filipinos Act to protect OFWs from abuses.
“The law is very detailed, very clear. If this was implemented, we won’t be confronted with this kind of problem.
We have not done anything until this happened,” Drilon said referring to Demafelis’ tragic death.
Drilon said that imposing an employment ban would only serve as “a stop-gap measure”, stressing that the government should ensure that the law is fully implemented.
“A ban alone will not be effective. It must be accompanied by stricter implementations of the law,” the senator said.
Kuwait, according to Villanueva, has not ratified and is not a signatory of any conventions pertaining to the protection of migrant workers, primarily 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.