Abuse of foreign domestic workers must end now

Joanna Demafelis’ death in Kuwait highlights the urgent need for better protections for foreign domestic workers.

Filipina maid death in Kuwait
Residents display placards as they wait for the arrival of the body of Joanna Demafelis, a Filipina domestic helper who was killed in Kuwait, in her hometown in Iloilo, Philippines [Reuters]

The death of Joanna Demafelis, a Filipina maid, would have been yet another horrible but all-too-familiar and easily forgotten tale of overseas domestic labour gone sour if it wasn’t so brutal. 

Her body was found last week stuffed in a freezer in an abandoned apartment in Kuwait – an incident of abuse taken to the extreme. It bore the signs of torture and strangulation, said Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who has since banned the deployment of Filipino workers to Kuwait, pending a thorough investigation.

Joanna’s is a particularly shocking storyline in the long-running narrative of Asian labour exports in response to global demand for domestic workers. It mirrors the vulnerabilities that are glossed over in the reckoning of advantages this market provides to labour-sending countries like the Philippines.

Remittances top the list of the government’s economic justification for exporting labour. In 2017, remittances to the Philippine economy from overseas workers totalled $33bn, higher than the $27bn projected by the Central Bank of the Philippines. Over several decades, remittances continued to expand by approximately 5 percent a year and constituted almost half (48 percent) of the country’s total merchandise exports in 2017. The Philippines is the third largest remittance-receiving country after India and China, and overseas remittances are one of the country’s major sources of revenue.

The majority of Filipino domestic workers are young, able-bodied women, mostly between the ages of 20-40 years old, many of whom have completed their secondary education. While most of them can speak English, they are hardly equipped with the socio-cultural-psychological wherewithal to navigate the complexities of the global marketplace. 

Many Filipina women like 29-year old Joanna, who had never ventured out of her home province of Iloilo prior to her employment in Kuwait, are vulnerable to the vagaries of situations they find themselves in at their overseas work places. Once they leave their country, they are often not given the chance to opt out of a contract and search for better work conditions. 

Joanna’s family most certainly did not expect her to end up in a freezer when she left home in 2014 to work in Kuwait. But violence, exploitation and even death are very real risks facing Filipina overseas workers. 

To be sure, some migrant-receiving countries have stepped up to the plate in terms of better labour governance. Singapore mandates that all employers provide health insurance. Health check-ups are required on a bi-annual basis, and employers have to undertake an online orientation programme before they can hire a domestic worker, duly sanctioned by the Ministry of Manpower. The Employment Foreign Manpower Act of 2016 provides additional protection for domestic workers, including mandatory weekly rest days and a Safety Agreement between employers and employees. Moreover, the Revised Penal Code increases the penalties for offending employers, including permanent disbarment from employing domestic workers. Several NGOs provide training for domestic helpers, who may wish to graduate out of domestic work and enter the caregiving or nursing professions. 

Most labour-sending countries like Pakistan, Sri Lanka and the Philippines have institutionalised an overseas welfare fund to provide insurance benefits to workers and their families in cases of death, repatriation and disablement. Sri Lanka has a robust system of providing loans for start-up entrepreneurships for returning migrant workers.

In November 2017, ASEAN signed the Consensus for the Protection and Promotion of the Rights and Welfare of Migrant Workers (pdf). It is intended to evolve into an action plan that would put flesh on an as-of-yet non-legally binding document.    

Despite all these advances in protecting migrant workers, the predicament of many women like Joanna remains unresolved. Current social insurance schemes miss out on various other contingencies that afflict migrant workers. The majority of complaints centre on issues of non-payment of salaries, breach of contract, onerous work conditions and cultural adjustment problems. But women who experience the worst of it, like Joanna, return home in a coffin, and their brutal predicament is known only much later.

Even for those fortunate ones with an all-round trouble-free experience, their return home is a tale of sudden insecurity. Throughout their overseas employment, they provide for everyone but themselves and accumulate no savings. A long line of children, nephews and nieces would have grown up and been educated on remittance money, the family home refurbished, the land title fully secured and paid for. But the domestic worker returns home with only a suitcase of clothes and perhaps a television set purchased at Dubai airport. She has no pension fund or forced savings. Her best years have been spent caring for others, whereas her insecurities have just begun. She is a spent force.   

If anything constructive emerges from Joanna’s tragedy, it is a plea for stronger protective regulation and legislation in labour-importing nations and better monitoring of the welfare of domestic workers from overseas embassies of labour-supplying countries. Ironically, Kuwait adopted a law in 2015 that provides workers with enforceable labour rights, one of the first Gulf countries to do so. Joanna’s case will now test the law’s robustness. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.