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Philippine legislators back ban

MANILA, Feb 27, (Agencies): In spite of Kuwait exerting tremendous efforts which led to the arrest of the two alleged killers of the Overseas Filipino Worker (OFW) Joanna Demafelis, one of the Philippines Congressmen said the ban on the deployment of workers to Kuwait must not be lifted until the leaders agree to sign a bilateral agreement, according to tempo.com.ph website.

During a press conference which was called for by the House majority bloc, Reps. Ana Siquian-Go (NPC, Isabela), Randolph Ting (PDPLaban, Cagayan), and Jesulito Manalo (Angkla party-list) said a congressional investigation will determine the liability of Philippine Labor and Foreign Affairs officials who allowed the Filipino workers to go to Kuwait without signing the bilateral agreement. Siquian-Go, chairperson of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, said the House investigation must also cover other countries which hire OFWs without guaranteeing to protect and ensure the welfare of OFWs.

Last week, John Bertiz representing the ACTS OFW party-list said the Philippine government officials have been violating the Migrant Workers Act that makes a bilateral agreement a requisite in the deployment of OFWs. Bertiz said Kuwait was allowed to receive OFWs despite its refusal to sign any agreement guaranteeing that OFWs will be treated fairly and protected against abuses. Manalo said the revelation made by Bertiz indicates there “is already a prima facie instance” that certain officials in the Department of Labor and other agencies tasked to look after OFW welfare had failed in their jobs.

“Without good faith especially in the light of many incidents of abuse, it is now a must that they must sign a bilateral agreement,” said Manalo, Chairman of the House Committee on OFW Affairs. The murder of the Filipina maid whose body was found in a freezer in Kuwait has triggered outrage and prompted Manila to impose a departure ban for its citizens planning to work in the Gulf state. But the estimated 252,000 Filipinos and Filipinas already working in Kuwait must weigh their fear of sharing the fate of Joanna Demafelis against the potential loss of vital income for their families.

Many have relatives back home who depend on remittances to survive, and some say they are forced to choose between their own wellbeing and that of their children. Luzviminda has worked in a hair salon in central Kuwait City since 2013 to support her five children, who live with her mother in the Philippines.

Despite being rattled by news of her compatriot’s murder, the 40-year-old told AFP going home was not an option. “I need the money,” she said as she strolled through a park in the city. “My eldest son started university this year to study business administration. It’s expensive, and there’s no way I would have been able to afford it if I had stayed in my country.” Demafelis’ body was discovered in abandoned flat in Kuwait, bearing what officials said appeared to be signs of torture.

A Lebanese-Syrian couple suspected of the young maid’s murder were arrested last week in the Syrian capital Damascus, after an Interpol manhunt. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte responded to the murder by accusing Arab employers of raping and starving their Filipina workers, and announced a ban on the country’s citizens heading to Kuwait for work.

Duterte also launched a repatriation plan under which some 1,700 workers have already returned home, according to the Philippines government. Kuwait, whose image was dealt a serious blow, offered an amnesty to illegal workers wanting to fly back home. But Human Rights Watch has warned the new Philippine ban would likely trigger a wave of unregulated labour migration, exposing thousands to an even greater risk of abuse.

Valued for their fluency in English, over two million Philippine citizens are employed across the Gulf. While the murder rocked the Philippine community in Kuwait, many say they want to remain in the country. “I was truly afraid — but actually because I want to stay here to make sure my children graduate from school,” said Luzviminda, who asked that her family name be withheld. “But if the government asks me to leave, I will have no choice but to comply”.

Like many others, her fate — and that of her children — now lies in the hands of diplomats, as the crisis between the two countries deepens. Some plan to lobby the Philippines’ Overseas Workers Welfare Administration to lift Duterte’s ban, at least for skilled workers whose status in Kuwait is not tied to a single family under the “kafala” (sponsorship) system prevalent in the Middle East. “There are a lot of opportunities for the Filipinos” in Kuwait, said Anna Bunda, who works with a recruitment agency.

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