After conducting another autopsy of the remains of Jeanelyn Villavende, the government has imposed a total deployment ban on overseas Filipino workers in Kuwait. The ban would be lifted, according to the government, only if two conditions are met: Villavende should get justice, and the Kuwaiti government must abide by its 2018 agreement with the Philippines on the protection of OFWs.
Even if the conditions are met, however, the government should seriously consider proposals from various quarters to make the ban permanent for certain types of workers, particularly household service workers like Villavende.
Kuwait had promised to improve its protection of OFWs after the body of another Filipina household helper, Joanna Demafelis, was found stuffed in a freezer in an apartment that had been abandoned by her Syrian and Lebanese employers. Demafelis had been missing for a year.
Advocacy groups for OFW welfare have pointed out that Kuwait has uniform rules for all migrant workers regardless of nationality. Kuwaiti employers are bound only by those rules, which were not changed for OFWs following Demafelis’ murder.
Bilateral agreements for OFW protection can also be skirted by unscrupulous recruiters who draw up the work contracts with prospective employers in Kuwait. The Philippines can go after the Filipino partners of such recruiters, but the Kuwaitis are accountable only to their government.
Villavende had reportedly sought help several times from her recruitment agency months before her death, complaining of abuse at the hands of her employers. Clearly and tragically, the complaints were ignored.
Among migrant workers, domestic helpers are the most vulnerable to abuse. Typically female and often the only foreign worker in a household, she is at the complete mercy of strangers as soon as she sets foot in her place of employment. Once the doors of the house close behind her, there is always the possibility that she could one day end up stuffed in a freezer or – as indicated in the Philippine autopsy of Villavende – brutally beaten and sexually violated.
Kuwaiti authorities did not report such details in their autopsy of Villavende – a fact that contributed to the decision of the Philippine government to impose the total deployment ban. There are nearly 244,000 Filipino workers in Kuwait. Over half of them are domestic helpers.
Apart from vulnerability to illegal recruiters and human traffickers, there are Filipinos who skirt deployment bans, lured by bigger pay in high-risk areas. If the total deployment ban to Kuwait is going to be permanent, the government must see to it that it can be enforced.