Monster in a box?


Diwa C. Guinigundo

Jullebee Ranara could be any Filipina who braved the Middle East for better money for her family. She could be anybody’s mother, aged 35 years old with four kids, always expectant of returning with her savings and dreams. But as that one broadsheet’s editorial put it, she happened to be like many other Filipinos who “came home in a box.”

Contrary to the reported remarks of Kuwait’s ambassador to Manila to Migrant Workers Secretary Susan Ople that Ms. Ranara’s brutal killing “was an isolated case,” there were others before her. Joanna Demafelis, 29, was killed by her Kuwaiti employer and froze her body for two years. Constancia Lago Dayag, 47, was also abused, her body showing contusions and hematoma, and declared dead on arrival in a Kuwaiti hospital. Jeanelyn Villavende was “black and blue” from sexual abuse and battering from her Kuwaiti employer. Her death could have been avoided if her recruitment agency took action on her previous complaints.

But Ms. Ranara’s fate was one of a kind. Based on reports, her employer’s 17-year-old son allegedly beat her to death, burned and finally disposed her body in the vast desert of Kuwait.

Kuwait is not an isolated case. The rest of the oil-rich Middle East has become a killing desert. As the Guardian reported, as many as 10,000 migrant workers from South and South-East Asia die every year in the Gulf states. Half of these deaths are unexplained. Aside from heat and humidity, migrant workers perish due to air pollution, overwork and abusive working conditions. Long hours of manual labor in high temperature can damage vital organs.

Of the 30 million migrant workers in this area, it must be most difficult for Filipina workers. Domestic work is one of the lowest paid, and most abused, of all occupations.

Working abroad is a good escape valve for weak economies that cannot provide good domestic jobs for their own people. Once deployed, these migrant workers start sending their blood money to their dependents back home to supplement the family income for food, education and medical care. Their foreign exchange (FX) remittances bolster their countries’ FX and national income.

From a policy standpoint, the Philippines should have been ambivalent because the good that comes out of deploying workers abroad is also bad optics. It means people fly because the opportunities abroad are more promising. So, what started out in 1974 as a stop-gap measure, and in response to the huge demand from the Middle East’s oil bonanza, became a permanent fixture in mitigating our chronic external trade deficit and low income.

Nearly 20 years later, Congress went full steam and instituted overseas employment and established a higher standard of protection and promotion of migrant workers’ welfare. RA 8042 or “Migrant Workers and Overseas Filipinos Act of 1995” and its subsequent amendments reiterated such fundamental principles as upholding the dignity of Filipino citizens, affording full protection to overseas labor, and providing free access to the courts and quasi-judicial bodies especially to Filipino migrant workers

But our ambivalence took a different form. While the law recognizes the substantial contribution of Filipino migrant workers to the national economy, it also denies “promoting overseas employment as a means to sustain economic growth and achieve national development.” The challenge, as the Act acknowledges, is to create the condition for sustained development of job opportunities and promote equitable distribution of both income and wealth.

But every year, our migrants’ cash remittances aggregate an average of $30 billion or ₱1.65 trillion — that’s easily 30 percent of the annual budget, or just less than 30 percent of our FX reserves. Even if they fly home in a box, those in authority will have second thoughts doing what former President Rodrigo Duterte did in 2018 in banning deployment in Kuwait.

Secretary Ople’s three conditions to justify a deployment ban are very reasonable. But it looks like Ms. Ranara’s case is more than compliant with them. One is the consensus between the Department of Migrant Workers and the Department of Foreign Affairs, a convergence between labor policy and foreign policy. The 2018 agreement between the Philippines and Kuwait has been violated many times over. Filipino labor has been violated time and again; our people have been placed in utter disadvantage.

Two is the national interest — there are some 268,000 Filipino workers in Kuwait and a deployment ban could affect them. It is argued that their employers might become hesitant to allow them to return to Manila since going back would be impossible with the ban. On the other hand, that could work both ways. Their employers might also be incentivized by the ban to treat them better by way of higher wages and better working conditions.

And finally, if the host country is unwilling to resolve the issue by negotiation, that should ultimately lead to deployment ban. True, the Kuwaiti authorities agreed with the Philippine government in 2018 to strengthen the safeguards for deployment, but it was not enough of a deterrent to prevent those succeeding cases of sexual abuse and murder.

Secretary Ople’s instruction for a fact-finding team to check on welfare cases and the performance of our Migrant Workers Office in Kuwait is urgent.  We need evidence-based decision on the deployment ban and a generalized response protocol in all labor markets for Filipino migrant workers.

What a relief if we cease receiving another report of a monster preying on our Filipina workers. We detest seeing them returning in a box. It’s a different case when it is the monster who ends up in a box.