NEVER in the history of the Philippines has a President called out a sovereign country for the cruel and inhuman (and sometimes, deadly) treatment of our overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) at the hands of their foreign employers. That is, until President Rodrigo Roa Duterte.
The physical abuse suffered by our OFWs, especially by our domestic workers in the Middle East, has been the proverbial elephant in the room that past administrations did not want to bring up or talk about, let alone publicly.
During the five decades that our government has been deploying migrant workers, no President has directly confronted a host country for fear of antagonizing them and suffering the economic fallout from such a confrontation—the exodus of millions of Filipino workers back to a country without the capacity to absorb them into the workforce.
But for President Duterte, it’s not just about jobs, money or remittances. It’s about the dignity and human rights of the Filipino worker, particularly, our female domestic workers, who are the most vulnerable to maltreatment and abuse.
The straw that broke the camel’s back was the death of Joanna Demafelis, a 29-year-old domestic worker in Kuwait, who was found stuffed in the chest freezer at her employer’s home.
Demafelis left her home in Iloilo City in May 2014 after being hired as a domestic helper by Mona Hassoun, a Syrian national and her Lebanese husband Nader Essam Assaf. The couple had three children whom Demafelis also took care of.
After Joanna’s original employment contract expired sometime in May 2016, she reportedly called one of her sisters to tell her that she had decided to extend her contract with her Lebanese employer. In fact, all seemed well as Joanna reportedly even remitted money to her sister in the Philippines last September 2016. A few months passed, however, without Joanna sending money to or contacting her siblings.
Unknown to the Demafelis family, Joanna’s Lebanese employer filed an absconding case against her—alleging that she ran away from their house without any permission—a day or so before the couple and their children escaped from Kuwait. The couple obviously did this in order to cover up Joanna’s murder and disappearance.
The only reason Joanna’s body was discovered was because her employer failed to pay the rent and other charges for the unit, prompting the landlord to obtain an order to evict the couple and repossess the house. It was then that the landlord and Kuwait authorities made the grim discovery in the couple’s apartment.
My sources who were present when President Duterte was given the report on Joanna and other abused OFWs in Kuwait said the president was livid with anger at seeing the report and photos showing the abuses suffered by our OFWs. And that’s putting it mildly. It was more like a barrage of cursing, swearing and ranting for almost an hour, they said. It was only after the President had calmed down enough that the press conference in Davao began.
There, President Duterte announced that he was imposing a total ban on the deployment of Filipino workers to Kuwait. “The Filipino is no slave to anyone anywhere and everywhere. We do not intend to offend any government or anyone but if a ban is what is needed then let it be…I was reading this report complete with pictures on the airplane and I cannot stomach this. This is totally unacceptable to me,” the president declared.
Addressing the leaders and people of Kuwait, the president asked: “Is there something wrong with your culture? Is there something wrong with your values?”
“When will this inhuman treatment of our Filipino workers end and when will the upliftment [sic]of their human dignity begin?” the president inquired.
Appealing to the leaders of Middle Eastern countries hosting millions of our OFWs, President Duterte said: “To the government and all others where our OFWs work, we seek and expect your assistance in this regard. We do not seek special treatment or privileges for our workers but we do expect respect for their dignity and basic human rights to keep them free from harm.”
It is apparent that for the president, the death of any Filipino migrant worker due to maltreatment or abuse is one death too many, and he will not hesitate to call out any country or its leaders even if this means setting off a diplomatic row.
Some critics of the deployment ban argue that the number of abused or maltreated Filipino workers in Kuwait and other Gulf States only constitute a small fraction of the total workers in the entire Middle East. Based on current data, that would be less than 4 percent. Other critics claim a ban unfairly deprives the bigger majority of OFWs a means of livelihood.
Such argument, however, reduces our migrant workers to a mere statistic, or worse, a commodity that can be sacrificed for the greater number. That it’s okay to deploy OFWs to Kuwait because only a few (thousand) of them will end up being maltreated and abused.
True, Filipino migrant workers contribute significantly to the Philippine economy, plowing in as much as $28.1 billion in 2017, according to data from the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas. Remittances from the Middle East, where there are around 2.5 million Filipino migrant workers are deployed, rose by 3.4 percent last year.
From my perspective, this makes President Duterte’s move to impose a deployment ban even more courageous and admirable. Clearly, the president is sending the message that he values the safety and well- being of an OFW above any national economic gain to be derived on the backs of our migrant workers.
I cannot agree more.