Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is under pressure to better protect the country’s millions of overseas workers after the body of a Filipina was discovered dead in a freezer in a Kuwait City apartment on February 6.

Joanna Daniela Demafelis, 29, was first declared missing by her Lebanese and Syrian employers in November last year. Bearing signs of torture, Demafelis’ body had sustained stab wounds to her neck. Her remains were flown back to the Philippines and received by her grieving family on February 16.

Demafelis’ murder, however, is not in isolation. Faced with seven other deaths of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) in Kuwait, the Philippine Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) had already ordered a temporary ban on new Filipinos working in the Gulf nation on January 19.

DOLE is still investigating the circumstances of the deaths of the seven Filipino household services workers, namely Vanessa Karissha Esguerra, Devine Riche Encarnacion, Patrick Sunga, Liezl Truz Hukdong, Mira Luna Juntilla, Marie Fe Saliling Librada, and Arlene Castillo Manzano.

On February 12, Duterte responded by issuing a total ban on migrant workers being sent to Kuwait. With populist panache, he asked Gulf states broadly, “Can I ask you now just to treat my countrymen as human beings with dignity? I do not want to fight with you. We need your help to improve our country.”

Around 190 Overseas Filipino Workers (OFW) from Kuwait arrive at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport, following President Rodrigo Duterte's call to evacuate workers after a Filipina was found dead in a freezer, in Pasay city, Metro Manila, Philippines February 23, 2018. REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco
Overseas Filipino Workers (OFW) from Kuwait arrive at Manila’s Ninoy Aquino International Airport on February 23, 2018. Photo: Reuters/Romeo Ranoco

According to official statistics, more than half of OFWs worldwide are employed in the Middle East, a rich source of the remittances that help to fuel the Philippine economy. The World Bank and Global Knowledge Partnership on Migration and Development ranked the Philippines as the third largest recipient nation of remittances worldwide, trailing only China and India.

Duterte appealed to the country’s legions of OFWs on the campaign trail, promising to ease their processing times and tackle fraudulent agencies that often act as de facto human trafficking rackets.

Once in office, he has established an Overseas Filipino Bank dedicated to providing OFWs banking services and even promised to establish a government ‘Department of OFWs’ in a speech to migrant workers during an April 2017 visit to Bahrain.

“We congressmen, mayors, even if we are just passing by, we bastards get a salute,” Duterte once said in vowing to crack down on corrupt customs officials who prey on OFWs at Philippine airports. “But poor OFWs are required to go through thorough inspections, running the risk of losing items from their baggage.”

Not all of those populist promises, however, have been kept. Duterte has come under criticism for failing to protect OFWs in Southeast Asia, despite the passage of a non-mandatory consensus on the protection and promotion of migrant worker rights during his leadership of the Asean grouping last year. He had billed the measure as the “centerpiece” of his tenure.

Philippines-Rodrigo Duterte-Overseas Filipino Bank-January 2018
President Rodrigo Duterte launches the Overseas Filipino Bank in Manila on January 18, 2018. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Gil S Calinga/Philippine News Agency

The Kuwait deployment ban, meanwhile, is already coming under heavy fire as more public relations than reform. The total ban on Filipinos taking work in Kuwait initially sowed confusion, as hundreds of OFWs were denied the needed clearances from relevant government agencies including the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration.

The ban has affected at least 300 Filipinos per day, the typical number of OFWs who leave for Kuwait every day. On February 12, the first day of the ban’s implementation, 400 Filipinos were already repatriated from the Gulf nation. Kuwait, meanwhile, has criticized the ban, threatening diplomatic repercussions.

Duterte’s government has so far promised a total of 25,000 pesos (US$482) as financial assistance for each repatriated OFW, a meager sum compared to how much they generally earn in the wealthy Gulf state.

Philippine labor officials, meanwhile, were slammed by Senator Joel Villanueva, chair of the Upper House’s committee on labor, employment and human resources development, for the government’s tardy response to the crisis.

While some view Duterte’s ban as an act of courage, others feel it could do more harm than good in the long term.

Human Rights Watch (HRW), a US-based rights lobby, has argued that the Philippines should instead “work with Kuwait to protect workers rather than ban them from migrating, which is more likely to cause harm than to help.”

HRW maintained that the Philippine government should instead focus efforts on reforming Gulf states’ kafala system – which requires migrant workers to have a sponsor who is responsible for their visas and legal status – to free OFWs from abusive work conditions.

Metro Manila, Philippines: February 7, 2014 - A construction worker fearlessly walking in a steel reinforcement bars at a construction site in the nation capital. The Philippine economy expanded a better-than-expected 6.5 percent in the final quarter of 2013, itâ??s the second best performing economy in Asia after China in the fourth quarter despite devastating natural disasters including the world's deadliest typhoon, officials said.
A Filipino construction worker in a February 7, 2014 file photo. Photo: iStock/Getty Images

HRW said the system prohibits “workers from leaving or changing jobs without their employers’ consent.” Regina Spöttl, an expert at Amnesty International, another global rights group, said that “through the sponsor law, they [migrant workers] are at the mercy of their employers.”

Migrant-Rights.org, a cause-oriented organization that seeks to promote the rights of migrant workers in the Middle East, contends that sending countries need to fully comprehend how the kafala system works and that it often ties workers to “difficult or impossible situations, including conditions that amount to forced labor.”

Without reform of the kafala system, currently in operation in Lebanon, Bahrain, Iraq, Jordan, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, all home to large communities of OFWs, labor rights activists view Duterte’s kneejerk ban on deployments to Kuwait as more grandstanding than reform.

“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?,” said Rex Verona, East and Southeast Asia coordinator at Migrant Forum for Asia, a labor rights group. “This instant ban is mere grandstanding and the work of a lazy president and government. The instant ban is not part of negotiations for reforms.”

Ellene Sana, executive director for the Center for Migrant Advocacy (CMA), echoed that view. She notes that similar temporary bans imposed on destination countries such as Lebanon, Libya and Iraq proved unsuccessful mainly because the “Workers still went there. Workers will go to where the jobs are.”

Overseas Filipino Workers (OFW) from Kuwait gather upon arrival at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Pasay city, Metro Manila, Philippines February 21, 2018. Following President Rodrigo Duterte's call to evacuate workers after a Filipina was found dead stuffed inside a freezer. REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco
Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) from Kuwait on arrival at Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Manila, February 21, 2018. Photo: Reuters/Romeo Ranoco

HRW notes that when people who are desperate to work faced with bans they nevertheless migrate, but do so through riskier, unregulated routes. The group said bans “leave them exposed to abuse and trafficking and make it more difficult to address abuses.”

Duterte has not made any announcements on whether his government feels the need to reform the kafala system to guarantee OFWs’ security and rights in Gulf nations. It would no doubt be a tricky negotiation with rich host nations reluctant to yield the control they now hold over migrant workers.

However, presidential adviser on OFWs Abdullah Mama-o told lawmakers last week: “We may have all the best laws in this country to protect the interest of our domestic workers working in different countries in the world, but if we still have this kafala system in different parts of the Middle East, we will not have that kind of protection for our workers.”

With the Kuwait ban now fully in effect, a Philippine envoy led by Labor Undersecretary Ciriaco Lagunza III left for Kuwait on February 23 to look into Gulf countries in the hope that “…overseas Filipino workers have sufficient protection.”

But until the kafala system is overhauled and reformed, his diplomatic mission will likely be as inconsequential as previous governments’ short-term deployment bans to upholding the security and rights of the nation’s remittance-earning OFWs.