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Monday, June 24, 2024

‘One too many’: At least 2 OFWs abused daily in Kuwait

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At least two Filipinos per day experienced violence in the form of physical abuse, sexual harassment, or rape in Kuwait in 2022, government data obtained by Manila Standard showed.

And while the numbers have gone down significantly in the past six years, these remain, according to Department of Migrant Workers Secretary Susan Ople, a case of having “one too many.”

Ople has just dispatched a fact-finding team in Kuwait to audit the performance of migrant workers officers in the Middle Eastern country ahead of a review of the bilateral labor agreement following the death of Jullebee Ranara.

“I have dispatched a team to visit our shelters, talk to stakeholders and assess the performance of our MWOs (migrant workers office) so that reforms can be identified and institutionalized. All the information gathered will also help the DMW greatly in preparing for the upcoming bilateral labor talks,” Ople said in an exclusive interview.

For Senator Joel Villanueva, who previously headed the Senate labor committee for six years, the over 200 percent increase in the number of cases involving contract violations as well as employers keeping possession of OFWs’ passports from 2017 until 2022 was worrisome.

What is alarming for him, though, was that cases of violent incidents persisted despite deployment bans and agreements signed to provide more protection for OFWs in the past six years.

“The cases remain even if we have signed agreements, even if we have imposed deployment bans. Something is wrong,” he said in a separate phone interview.

Based on DMW data submitted to Villanueva’s office, there were 823 cases of physical maltreatment, 99 cases of sexual abuse, and 26 cases of rape last year, for a total of 948 cases or an average of at least two cases per day.

Villanueva added that at least 96 percent of OFWs who have sought refuge in shelters in Kuwait are household service workers.

Senator Raffy Tulfo, chairman of the Senate committee on migrant workers, said part of the problem is the implementation of the agreements signed with Kuwait.

In the 2018 Memorandum of Agreement signed with Kuwait, among the salient features were as follows: OFWs must keep possession of their passports and other travel documents; they must be allowed to use their phones; and they must be provided food, housing, and clothing, and must be registered in the health insurance system, among others.

The MOA also noted that employers who have records of contract violations or abuse will be disqualified from recruiting workers.

“On paper, it looks good. They seem to be compliant. But how come our OFWs still do not have their passports with them?” Tulfo told Manila Standard.

Ople agreed. “We need very clear guidelines and mechanisms to prevent such cases from happening,” she said.

The agreement was in response to the murder of OFW Joanna Demafelis, who was found dead in a freezer in 2018.

Two years later, domestic helper Jeanelyn Villavende was also murdered by her female employer.

In both instances, the administration of then-President Rodrigo Duterte imposed a deployment ban.

Ople, however, is not inclined to adopt the same strategy even as she ordered the suspension of the deployment of first-time OFWs, particularly domestic helpers, to Kuwait following Ranara’s murder.

“From a policy perspective, the imposition of a deployment ban entails consultations between the DMW and the Department of Foreign Affairs, as well as with other stakeholders. We also need to study the impact of such a ban on those already in Kuwait, which numbers around 200,000 workers. Would they be able to come home when their contract expires, or would their foreign employers try to hold on to them knowing the difficulty in getting a replacement from Manila?” she said.

“Migration governance is never easy and it is often emotionally charged. It is vital that we never lose sight of the national interest, which is to make sure that we are able to add more safeguards and secure better protection for our workers in Kuwait,” Ople added.

Tulfo has suggested requiring Kuwaiti employers to submit a police clearance as well as pass a neuro-psychiatric exam before they are allowed to hire OFWs.

In the long run, Tulfo said other labor destinations should be explored.

“Kuwait is the topnotcher when it comes to high-risk countries for OFWs. There are many other friendly countries that are low-risk for our OFWs,” he said.

For Villanueva, the approach has to be “holistic and intelligent.”

“We cannot be content with just having a checklist and ticking the boxes. We have to make sure our OFWs are protected,” he said.

Both the Philippines and Kuwait will review their bilateral labor agreement, likely within the first semester of the year.

Pending the BLA review, the audit of the fact-finding team deployed by Ople will serve as the basis for reforms.

“One rape, one senseless death, one unpunished crime or incident of abuse, is one too many,” Ople said.

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