Philippines Imposes Total Ban on Workers Heading to Kuwait

Richel V. Umel
Iligan, Philippines
200117-PH-kuwait-620.jpg Philippine protesters picket outside the Senate in Manila at the start of a probe by lawmakers regarding a Filipina overseas worker who was found dead inside a freezer in Kuwait, Feb. 21, 2018.

The Philippines has imposed a total ban on sending new workers to Kuwait, after a maid who allegedly was raped and mutilated by her employer died, officials said, announcing the second ban since 2019 over grisly killings of Filipino laborers in the Gulf state.

Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III accused Kuwaiti authorities of a “cover-up” in the recent death of domestic servant Jeanelyn Padernal Villavende as he recommended the sanction on Filipino Overseas Foreign Workers (OFW).

An autopsy by the National Bureau of Investigation confirmed she had been raped before being tortured and killed last month – contrary to a report by the Kuwait Ministry of Health – the Philippine Department of Labor and Employment alleged.

“The OFW was sexually abused and brutally murdered while some of her internal organs were missing,” Bello said in a statement.

An autopsy report released earlier by Kuwait had listed the cause of death only as heart failure arising from physical injuries, he said.

“It is definitely in contrast with the findings of the NBI that she was sexually abused,” Bello said, referring to the bureau of investigation.

The “alleged attempt of the Kuwaiti government to cover-up the true cause of death of a Pinay overseas Filipino worker has fueled the Philippine government to impose a total [overseas foreign] worker ban in the Arab country,” said the statement issued by the labor department issued on Thursday.

The ban, Bello said, would remain in effect until the Philippine government got justice for Villavende.

On Friday, a spokesman for President Rodrigo Duterte said the leader had approved the labor secretary’s recommendation.

“The ban includes skilled workers,” spokesman Salvador Panelo said in a statement.

Bernard Olalia, administrator of the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration, said it would not process papers of those worker leaving for Kuwait. However, he said those who were able to secure their travel documents before this week would be allowed to travel to the oil-rich Middle Eastern state.

Villavende, 26, who left her home in southern Cotabato province in June 2019, was declared dead on arrival when she was brought to a Kuwaiti hospital on Dec. 30. A couple suspected of being behind her death are in Kuwaiti police custody.

“This happened and now we would see how the government of Kuwait would react to this development. We already have a clear agreement with them,” Philippine Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra said. “So, if they do not comply with their undertaking or responsibilities, government-to-government, in my opinion our OFWs can find work in other countries.”

He said there were “clear indications” that Villavende had suffered sexual abuse. Old wounds were found on her body, indicating she had been battered for weeks prior to her death.

Last year, the Philippines imposed a total ban on the deployment of its workers to Kuwait, in the wake of the gruesome deaths of at least two Filipino workers. These included a maid, Joanna Demafelis, who was found dead in a freezer in her employers’ abandoned apartment in Kuwait City the previous year.

President Rodrigo Duterte banned the deployment of new workers to Kuwait after Constancia Lago Dayag was declared dead in a hospital in Kuwait in May 2019.

Duterte, however, later lifted the first ban after Kuwait apologized and agreed to sign a deal to protect Filipino workers. Among other conditions, Kuwait agreed to a demand by Manila that Kuwaiti employers be prohibited from confiscating the passports of their Filipino workers.

Army of workers

More than 2 million Filipinos work across the Middle East, including about 500,000 in Kuwait. These figures reflect the number of documented workers, and it is believed that tens of thousands of others are working in the region as maids and laborers without valid papers. They risk going there often through illegal means, putting their safety at risk, labor advocacy groups said.

The latest ban on Philippine workers going to Kuwait came as Manila was in the process of trying to repatriate Filipinos from Iran, Iraq and Lebanon after tensions escalated sharply between Washington and Tehran following the killing of Iran’s top general in a U.S. drone strike in Baghdad on Jan. 3.

The two longtime adversaries pulled back from the brink of war, but the Philippines has pushed on with efforts to evacuate and repatriate its workers in those three countries.

This week, Manila repatriated 12 workers from Baghdad. Meanwhile, a government labor attaché travelled to Saudi Arabia to help in the repatriation effort, though it remained unclear how many Filipinos had responded to their government’s call to return home.

“Requests for repatriation from OFWs in Iraq, Libya and other Middle East hotspots have been received by our embassies and consulates and their exit clearances are now being processed,” the Philippine Department of National Defense said.

The Philippines’ repatriation team, led by special envoy Roy Cimatu, was exploring all possible routes by airlines, from Baghdad and Erbil in Iraq to Doha, Qatar, and then on to Manila.

Jeoffrey Maitem contributed to this report from Cotabato City, Philippines.

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