Groups call for vigilance in keeping track of OFWs’ working conditions
WHEN PRESIDENT RODRIGO DUTERTE declared the total ban of deployment of new workers to Kuwait last Monday after reports of deaths and abuse of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs), many labor groups and employment agencies expressed fear that this could impact the remittance lifeline of the economy.
Many disagreed about the decision, saying that the President overreacted and was not briefed about the revenue loss and negative economic impact. Kuwait, considered to be the second largest employer of OFWs, has over 200,000 recorded Filipino workers in both the domestic and professional sectors.
However, some labor groups such as the Federation of Free Workers (FFW), a national trade union organization with members from different business sectors, expressed that the ban is a “welcome development.”
“In principle, we agree that we shouldn’t be sending domestic workers not only in Kuwait but the whole Middle East as well,” said Julius Cainglet, FFW Vice President for Research, Advocacy and Partnerships. “We don’t want to discriminate but with their laws, culture and even religion, the country tends to look down on domestic helpers, especially women.”
This discrimination, he said, has resulted to years of abuse under Arab employers. “Not all employers are abusive, but most of the abuses happen mostly to domestic helpers or those working as nanny, maid, and cook. They are the most vulnerable.”
History of abuse
The Administrative Order was issued after the deaths of seven migrant workers in Kuwait which was reported for this month alone. One of the cases involves Filipino domestic helper Joanna Daniela Demafelis, whose body was found stuffed in a freezer in an abandoned apartment. Though her body arrived just last Thursday, Feb. 15, she was believed to have been murdered by her employer almost a year ago.
Last year, a total of 120 deaths have been reported in Kuwait, prompting the President to issue a total halt of all employment processes for new workers. “When will this inhuman treatment of Filipinos end? When will the upliftment of their human dignity begin?” Duterte asked last Monday in Davao City.
The abuse cases in Kuwait is not new. In 2006, an US-based organization reported that approximately 500 Filipino domestic helpers would escape their abusive employers at any given time, seeking refuge at the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration’s (OWWA) office just beside the Philippine Embassy. The number of abused women, most of whom would arrive at the OWWA office bruised and without any of their legal documents, was so big that they can hardly fit inside the office.
In the recent Global Slavery Index released by the group Walk Free Foundation, over 400,000 Filipinos are living under modern-day slavery, and that a significant portion of this statistics show that overseas domestic helpers have the highest industry risk. This is alarming because figures from the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) show that one out of two women OFWs work as migrant domestic workers abroad.
Even newly-appointed OWWA Deputy Administrator Arnell Ignacio in various media statements admits that “monitoring all these abuses is difficult.” He shared that for more than two million OFWs abroad, there are only about hundred plus OWWA employees deployed internationally to keep track of the situation. Though they are trying their best, OWWA only has 300 employees in the country to handle thousands of cases.
More than just the ban, Cainglet shared that the administration should also address employment concerns at a local level.
“Everyone is saying that we’re starting to see progress and growth, yet we can’t create enough jobs in our country. If there are enough jobs here, then people won’t even think that the only choice they have for a better life is to go abroad. The government should improve on the development of different sectors, especially in manufacturing because that will create concrete, stable jobs for us,” said Cainglet. FFW has been working for years with different labor unions, private employers, and civil society groups to help push for better wages and benefits for all employees.
Next, he said, the government should also be aggressive in pushing for bilateral agreement with the government of Kuwait to ensure the protection of Filipino workers.
“Our advantage is that we’ve learned to develop these agreements with different nations wherein we get to define what is the minimum wage for our OFWs, what benefits they will enjoy, who takes care of their employment fees, among others. For Kuwait, and the rest of the Middle Eastern countries, we should improve our negotiations and have a strong and serious bilateral agreements.”
The bilateral agreements he noted, should lay out basic benefits and concerns such as the correct wage rate, the terms of a proper day-off, and the inclusion of the right to regularly communicate with their family back in the Philippines.
As of the moment, the Philippine government is planning to renew talks with the government of Kuwait to strengthen provisions on how to protect OFWs, particularly domestic helpers. Department of Labor and Employment Secretary Silvestre Bello III said in a statement that a technical working group composed of representatives from OWWA and the Philippine Overseas and Employment Agency (POEA) will travel to Kuwait to create the initial draft for a Memorandum of Understanding that will include new provisions on how to protect Filipinos from abuse. Part of the provisions would impose that OFWs should be able to keep important documents with them such as passports and employment contracts.
Last year, the government has successfully pushed for the better treatment and benefits of Filipino domestic helpers working in Hong Kong and Singapore, and the government aims to replicate this kind of outcome.
And as for those who have already been repatriated, the FFW representative shared that there should be a more solid plan of what they can do once they return to the country.
“It’s not enough that you give them the seed money to start a business when they arrive because not everyone is cut out to be entrepreneurs. The problem with this aid is that most of these workers are no longer young, so you can’t really teach them new skills. The government should have a more solid plan on what they can do once OFWs return home,” he said.
Cainglet suggested that the Philippine government should be more active and vigilant in keeping track of the situation of Filipinos working abroad.
“It shouldn’t really be about protecting Filipinos from abuse by not letting them go there. What about the Filipinos who are still there in Kuwait? Sadly, there are only a handful of government representatives that the Filipinos count on. Even though there are labor groups, civil society organizations, and even the Church who are helping these Filipinos, it’s still not enough. We must send more people to monitor the living conditions of Filipinos abroad.”