Senators question delayed enforcement of Kuwait deployment ban despite OFW deaths

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, February 22) — Senators on Wednesday grilled overseas employment authorities for not halting the deployment of Filipinos to Kuwait earlier despite increasing overseas Filipino worker (OFW) deaths in the Gulf state.

In a Senate hearing on OFW deaths and the deployment ban to Kuwait, they pointed out officials from the Foreign Affairs Department should have spotted “red flags” on the situation of workers in the Arab nation before.

They said it was “baffling” why the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) did not impose the deployment ban to Kuwait, considering the increase in OFW deaths in the country the past two years.

“As a matter of policy, meron po bang ganun [Do we have that]? How many deaths do we need to hear or abuses na must be reported before your office or government agency will impose a deployment ban,” Sen. Joel Villanueva said.

A total of 185 Filipino workers have died in Kuwait alone since 2016. The number spiked from 82 in 2016 to 103 deaths in 2017.

In January, just weeks after Pres. Rodrigo Duterte appealed to Kuwaitis to treat Filipinos with “dignity,” an OFW, Joanna Demafelis, was discovered dead in a freezer.

Her death has sparked a total deployment ban to the Arab country and the repatriation of distressed OFWs, as the Philippines tries to negotiate the signing of a pending memorandum to give protection to OFWs in Kuwait.

READ: DOLE orders total ban on deployment of OFWs to Kuwait

But senators said even prior to Joanna’s death, officials should have enforced precautionary measures for OFWs.

Sen. Frank Drilon said given the increasing worker fatalities in Kuwait, labor authorities should have raised the issue. 

“At the very least it should have been brought to surface so that public opinion can be developed and pressure can be brought upon the recruitment agencies to stop recruiting for Kuwait,” he told Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III.

Under the law, the POEA is suppose to review deployment conditions in countries with OFWs. They are also authorized to impose a ban if needed.

Bello said while they had not enforced a total ban, they lowered the deployment of workers to Kuwait.

“Now the increase in the incidence of death and abuse on our OFWs can be attributed to so many illegal recruitments your honor.... that is why whenever we impose stricter rules and procedures... these give rise to illegal recruiters,” he added.

Kafala system

The hearing also shed light on the Kafala system — a highly-restrictive sponsorship system for overseas workers in the Middle East.

The practice keeps the worker highly dependent on the employer, and susceptible to maltreatment such as no days off, no food, and as little as two to four hours of sleep daily.

“The sponsor actually becomes the owner of the service worker or the domestic in the concept of chattel. It's a slave, actually,” Foreign Affairs Undersecretary Ernesto Abella said.

It has been criticized by human rights groups, which claim it can skew power relations between the employer and worker.

DFA: Kuwait only ‘partially compliant’

With these many alarms sounded, Villanueva asked why the government failed to enforce further protection for workers.

Bakit pa tayo kailangan magpadala kung klaro na may ganyanAng dami na hong red flags eh which should have been alerted long before,” Villanueva said.

[Translation: Why should we send people if it's clear that there are these practices... There are so many red flags which should have been alerted long before.]

POEA, for its part, said it gets go signals from the DFA on whether or not to deploy workers abroad.

“Before the POEA allows deployment of workers to other countries, there must be a certification issued by the Department of Foreign Affairs that said country is a labor compliant country,” POEA Administrator Bernard Olalia said.

The DFA, meanwhile, said it only certified Kuwait as “partially compliant”

“They are being rated as partially compliant for the plain and simple… because they also entertain the cases that we have been filing,” Abella said. “There is some form of cooperation going on.”

Kuwait is a top destination for OFWS, with some 240,000 Filipinos are working in that country as of 2016. Latest Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas data show cash remittances from Kuwait from January to November 2017 amount to US$735 million (₱37.5 billion).

Almost 54,000 new jobs are at risk due to the ban as the Philippines negotiates with Kuwait for better protection of migrant workers.

READ: Kuwait extends amnesty program till April 22