Thursday, September 20, 2018
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Commentary

When an OFW killed her Kuwaiti employer

Kuwait is the face of modern-day slavery. This thought crystallized in our mind after the Senate hearing on the torture and death of overseas Filipino worker Joanna Demafelis, whose corpse was found in a freezer in an abandoned apartment in that Gulf country a year after she went missing. According to government data, over a hundred Filipino domestic workers have died in Kuwait due mostly to their employers’ abuse and inhuman treatment.

At the hearing, Sen. Joel Villanueva, chair of the committee on labor and employment, expressed surprise why the ban on OFW deployment to Kuwait was not imposed earlier given the gory tales of abuse occurring there. Sen. Franklin Drilon, who once served as labor secretary, said he was the first official to impose such a ban but recruiters and other government officials found a way to skirt it. He insisted, however, that the problem is failure to implement the Migrant Workers Act.

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Secretary Abdullah Mama-o, presidential adviser on OFWs and Muslim concerns, said the root of the problem is the so-called “kapala” system in Arab countries, which reduces workers to mere chattel: The employer virtually “owns” the OFW after taking hold of his or her passport; the OFW is padlocked in her or his room, without liberty to go out or seek other employment.
Mama-o also said that while there are labor laws in the Middle East to protect workers, these do not cover domestic workers. Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello said negotiations are ongoing with the government of Kuwait for a memorandum of understanding to protect OFWs.

The tragedy involving Demafelis brings to mind the tragic killing of a Kuwaiti employer by a female OFW in the early 1990s. It did not receive much prominence in the media similar to that which attended the stories of Sarah Balabagan and Flor Contemplacion because the employer was a “sheika” (a female leader) who was the ex-wife of the brother of the emir of Kuwait. In fact, Philippine diplomats had a hard time hiding the incident from the prying eyes of the media and the public lest there be a backlash on OFWs in that country (232,000 as of the latest count).

Although past middle age, Lorna Laraquel was the typical OFW driven by poverty to seek employment in a foreign land. She worked in the household of Princess Latifa, performing all sorts of chores. In a dispatch to the home office, the Philippine Embassy in Cairo reported that while in Kuwait, Laraquel was “severely maltreated like an animal, not properly fed, and continuously harangued by her employer.”

In a published article titled “A Tale of Modern Slavery: The Prince and the Maidservant,” author Heiko Flottau wrote that “German press reports dating from February 1992 claim that Princess Latifa forced [Laraquel] to eat her food like a dog, groveling on the floor.”

In another published article, Princess Pala Gandamra wrote that on Feb. 3, 1992, as is the practice of rich Arabs at the onset of spring, the sheika went to Cairo for a vacation and took Laraquel along. On Feb. 13, after Laraquel was again subjected to verbal and physical abuse. her sanity snapped and she killed her employer in a scuffle. She confessed later to the crime and was sentenced to 15 years in jail after a trial.

When this writer took over the Cairo diplomatic post, he literally left no stone unturned in appealing for clemency for Laraquel. At every Egyptian celebration, like the Eid Festivals and Independence Day, a note verbale was sent to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs pleading that Laraquel be pardoned. Eventually, on Oct. 6, 1999, then President Hosni Mubarak granted her executive clemency.

There is a sense of schadenfreude in this story.

Macabangkit B. Lanto (amb_mac_lanto@yahoo.com), UP Law 1967, was a Fulbright fellow in New York University for his postgraduate studies. He has served the government as congressman, ambassador, and undersecretary, among other positions.

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TAGS: Joanna Demafelis, Kuwait, modern-day slavery
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