Expert: Many OFWs seen as 'commodity' by foreign employers

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(File photo)

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, February 15) — Refusing to see workers as human beings leads to abuse.

That was what Toots Ople, the Head of the Blas Ople Policy Center, told CNN Philippines Thursday when she was asked about how a tragedy like that of Joanna Demafelis happens.

Demafelis worked as a domestic helper in Kuwait. Her body was found stored in a freezer in an apartment in Kuwait, where it may have been kept for over a year. Authorities said it had torture marks and there were indications she was strangled to death.

RELATED: Family of slain OFW in Kuwait had no idea she was maltreated

"These things happen when people, regardless of nationality, they don't see the mother in that person...They just see a slave, a commodity. Someone that they bought," Ople said.

Whether the abuse is physical or emotional, the trauma leaves permanent scars. What happened to Demafelis, Ople said, is a "recurring nightmare."

Ople added employers pay a premium for Filipina domestic workers.

"A lot of Arab employers prefer Filipino domestic helpers because alam nila, yung children nila maaalagaan ng husto," she said

[Translation: A lot of Arab employers prefer Filipino domestic helpers because they know their children will be well cared for.]

 

While not all Filipina domestic workers end up abused, Ople recognized their situation is a lot like Russian roulette.

"The challenge before us is reducing the prevalence of Filipina domestic workers being employed by the worst of the worst in terms of labor standards," she added.

Ople said she did not want to use the word "amo" (master) when describing the employers, as its counterpart would be slave.

'Robotized in a way'

Ople said Filipina domestic workers are made helpless by their employers because their passports, means of communications like mobile phones, and the right to rest are often taken away from them.

"They are being 'robotized' in a way," she said, adding there is mental and emotional anguish in having to ask the "madam" – the female head of household – for permission to contact family and loved ones by borrowing their mobile phones.

RELATED: A long way home: The plight of workers in Kuwait

She also explained that current situations make it more complicated to keep track of abuses.

"Ngayon kasi may recruitment agency ka, government of course, the worker, minsan may sub-agent pa, bago makarating sa worker, and then meron kang counterpart agency, tapos yung counterpart agency, yun ang may kakilala sa employer," she explained.

In the case of Demafelis specifically, when her agency was cancelled, it became nearly impossible to find out where she was.

A "dead end" was how Ople described it.

RELATED: OWWA administrator: Slain Filipino domestic worker could not be found after Kuwaiti agency closed

Raul Dado, executive director for the Office for Mighrant Worker Affairs of the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), said there was no formal notice to the Philippine Embassy regarding Demafelis.

Better treatment for OFWs sought

Meanwhile, Dado said President Rodrigo Duterte's tough stance against foreign employers who abuse Filipino workers is a welcome development.

"He (President Duterte) actually showed us the leverage with which we could negotiate for better treatment of our workers.

If the Philippines were to pull out workers from Arab countries, Dado said the effect would be so widespread that even prominent families would be affected.

Overseas Workers Welfare Association Deputy Administrator Arnell Ignacio said Duterte's reaction – calling out Kuwait for the maltreatment of overseas Filipino workers (OFW) – was a natural response.

"What do we want? You see a President na nagde-declare ng ban. Why? Do we want him to be chunny-chummy with a situation like this? Sinaktan, binugbog, duguan, bali ang paa – what do we do? It's a natural reaction of a father of a nation. His children are being slaughtered. It's just but natural na ganoon ang sasabihin ng Presidente," he said.

[Translation: What do we want? You see a President who declared a ban. Why? Do you want him to be chummy-chummy with a situation like this? Someone was hurt, beaten, bloodied, with a broken leg – what do we do? it's a natural reaction of a father of a nation. His children are being slaughtered. It's just but natural that the President would say that.]

RELATED: OFW found dead in freezer in Kuwait suffered grave physical abuse - PH envoy

The country's usual diplomatic response would not work in this case, Ignacio said because "hindi na pangkaraniwang maltreatment na ang nangyayari."

[Translation: The usual case of maltreatment is not happeneing here.]

Ignacio said he receives around 30 reports of OFWs being maltreated in Kuwait – some of them with video.

When asked if this was the exception rather than the rule, Ignacio said in the case of Kuwait, it was not about percentages. The maltreatment of OFWs did not sit well with him.

"We cannot take treatment like that from anybody," he said.

Ople said the government can say which countries workers can go to.

"It is part of our sovereign rights as a nation to decide which job markets are the best for our own citizens.