Does Duterte really care about overseas workers?


Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte wears a hardhat at the country’s customs bureau PHOTO/AFP/Ted Aljibe

Populist leader’s championing of migrant labor cast into doubt with knee-jerk response to brutal murder of Filipina in Kuwait

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is under pressure to better protect the country’s millions of overseas workers after the body of a Filipina was discovered dead in a freezer in a Kuwait City apartment on February 6.

Joanna Daniela Demafelis, 29, was first declared missing by her Lebanese and Syrian employers in November last year. Bearing signs of torture, Demafelis’ body had sustained stab wounds to her neck. Her remains were flown back to the Philippines and received by her grieving family on February 16.

Demafelis’ murder, however, is not in isolation. Faced with seven other deaths of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) in Kuwait, the Philippine Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) had already ordered a temporary ban on new Filipinos working in the Gulf nation on January 19.

DOLE is still investigating the circumstances of the deaths of the seven Filipino household services workers, namely Vanessa Karissha Esguerra, Devine Riche Encarnacion, Patrick Sunga, Liezl Truz Hukdong, Mira Luna Juntilla, Marie Fe Saliling Librada, and Arlene Castillo Manzano.

On February 12, Duterte responded by issuing a total ban on migrant workers being sent to Kuwait. With populist panache, he asked Gulf states broadly, “Can I ask you now just to treat my countrymen as human beings with dignity? I do not want to fight with you. We need your help to improve our country.”

According to official statistics, more than half of OFWs worldwide are employed in the Middle East, a rich source of the remittances that help to fuel the Philippine economy. The World Bank and Global Knowledge Partnership on Migration and Development ranked the Philippines as the third largest recipient nation of remittances worldwide, trailing only China and India.

Duterte appealed to the country’s legions of OFWs on the campaign trail, promising to ease their processing times and tackle fraudulent agencies that often act as de facto human trafficking rackets.

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