Hardly had the nation breathed a sigh of relief over the reported arrest of the suspected killers of Joanna Demafelis — the overseas Filipino worker (OFW) found dead in a freezer a year after her family had reported her missing in Kuwait — than news broke of another missing OFW.
Family members of Nilda Bongar, a widow with four children and working as a domestic worker in Saudi Arabia, said they had not heard from her for a year and five months now. Her employer reportedly told Saudi police in September 2016 that she had run away, but her family said they fear the worst, because she had previously complained of being maltreated and locked up by her female employer.
The cases of Demafelis and Bongar once more illustrate the dire straits of Filipinos working as domestics overseas: They risk sexual abuse, maltreatment, even death in their quest for jobs and a better future for their children.
The stories told by OFWs recently repatriated from Kuwait after President Duterte declared a ban on deployment to that country are horrific.
They were called animals, recalled one. Another said her employer threw her food in the garbage can and ordered her to eat it from there. Others recalled being slapped, kicked and punched for the slightest mistake, just as Demafelis had apparently been beaten regularly by her employers, as her broken bones and bruises showed.
Aside from sexual and physical assault, a new form of abuse has surfaced, according to OFWs in the Middle East.
In online messages, the domestic helpers based in Riyadh, Dammam and Jeddah called on the Philippine government to stop their employers from trading them like slaves. They are moved from one employer to another, depending on who makes the highest bid, and are traded anew to households that can give their erstwhile employers the highest profit, they said.
With no contract to cover the job transfers, the women are left vulnerable to abuse, especially because their employers seize their passports and work visas to prevent their escape.
Before Demafelis, scores of other OFWs had come home in a box, their “New Heroes” appellation proving to be of no help to them.
Among the most gruesome case was that of Liezl Trus Hukdong, who, her Kuwaiti employer had said, hanged herself — something her family could not believe.
When Hukdong’s body arrived in the Philippines on Jan. 5 and was brought to a funeral home, it was discovered that the vital organs — the brain, tongue, kidney, lungs and eyes — had been removed. The documents on her death were also suspicious, said her family.
There are at least 252,000 OFWs working in Kuwait and some two million more across the Middle East — the preferred work destination among 24.7 percent of OFWs, according to 2015 figures from the Philippine Statistics Authority.
Many of them are undocumented and vulnerable, and sorely in need of assistance from the assigned labor and welfare officers in the region.
The Overseas Workers’ Welfare Administration (Owwa) urges OFWs in crisis to seek its help. Demafelis’ family recalled doing just that—and not getting adequate response from it, with the Owwa saying it was grossly understaffed.
Why, despite the burgeoning number of OFWs in the Middle East, the Philippine government maintains a very lean staff there is beyond logic and reason.
Considering how OFW remittances account for 10 percent of the gross domestic product (or P1.2 trillion as of 2014, according to the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas), and how the number of OFWs has climbed from 7.3 million in 2000 to 10.2 million in 2013, it boggles the mind that the welfare of these “cash cows” seems farthest from mind when government functionaries plan the national budget.
Sadly enough, despite Demafelis’ heart-wrenching fate, many OFWs in Kuwait choose to stay, saying the benefits outweigh the risks they face.
In fact, a group of OFWs reportedly plan to petition the government to lift its ban on deployment to Kuwait, as they see it as a better alternative to the scarce job prospects back home.
With about 10,000 OFWs overstaying in Kuwait, according to Ambassador Renato Pedro Villa, and some 8,000 (or 80 percent) of them domestic workers who claim to have been abused, expect more cases similar to that of Demafelis and Bongar to surface anew. Thus has become the story of our lives.