THE government should have acted more quickly and decisively after hearing about the grisly murder of Jullebee Ranara, a Filipino domestic helper in Kuwait. Right away, the authorities should have suspended the deployment of domestic helpers there and started a review of the policies protecting the most vulnerable Filipino workers abroad.
Miss Ranara was allegedly killed by the teenage son of her employer, and he has since been taken into custody. According to reports from Kuwait, her body was burned and dumped by a roadside. Her head was smashed, and an autopsy revealed that she was pregnant.
When her body was returned to Manila in late January, several politicians and civil society groups called for a suspension of the deployment of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) to Kuwait. That would not be the first for that country.
In 2018, the Duterte administration suspended deployment to Kuwait after the body of Joanna Demafelis, also a domestic helper, was found stuffed in a freezer. Later that year, the ban was lifted after the Philippines and Kuwait signed a memorandum of agreement that mandated added protections for Filipino domestic helpers working there.
Several other OFWs have been killed while working in Kuwait. But in fairness to that country, reports of Filipino workers, particularly women and unskilled laborers, being abused by their employers have been rampant across the Middle East.
Again, to be fair, the newly minted Department of Migrant Workers (DMW) has reached out to the Ranara family, and it has dispatched a team to Kuwait to check on the OFWs there. In a statement, the DMW said there were at least 400 distressed workers in an OFW shelter. The department added that it would repatriate many of them soon.
The DMW, however, has been reluctant to ban placements in Kuwait. A department spokesman said that the government should instead look into the root causes of the problem, referring to the lack of jobs in the country. Also, prohibiting OFWs from going there would be impractical, as they would likely go to Kuwait illegally, perhaps through another country, the DMW official explained.
Interestingly, those who had opposed the deployment ban imposed briefly by the Duterte administration argued that it was a burden on OFWs bound for Kuwait, particularly those who were not domestic helpers. According to reports, about 268,000 OFWs work in Kuwait, and roughly 195,000 of them are there as domestic helpers.
Practical or not, a deployment ban seems necessary, at least for Kuwait. The DMW should review and renegotiate the Philippine agreement with Kuwait. And while at it, the department might as well look at the policies for the entire region.
Unlike before, the DMW should consider limiting the ban to domestic helpers and unskilled workers. After all, Filipino professionals working abroad, like nurses, are probably less vulnerable to similar abuse.
Granted, the DMW has a point about the root causes that need attention. It should propose laws or amendments to further increase the minimum salary and benefits of domestic helpers working in the country. That might entice some to remain in the Philippines, where they would be closer to their family.
At the same time, the DMW should impose a higher minimum salary and added benefits on foreign employers looking to hire Filipino domestic helpers. This will help limit placement to foreign employers who can pay well and provide benefits, like health care and paid leaves.
Naturally, that is not a guarantee against abuse, and some Filipinos will still try to circumvent those safeguards. That is perhaps why some in DMW assume that the number of illegal workers will increase if more deployment barriers are erected. That should be validated, though.
It is also possible that OFWs will choose to work where their status would be legal and where the pay is higher because the Philippine government requires it. Also, prospective employers and placement agencies may choose to recruit in places where laws on deployment are not as restrictive and less costly as a result.
The only certainty, it seems, is that the current setup, particularly for Kuwait, is inadequate.
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