ILOILO—More than a hundred relatives and supporters of a Filipina maid whose body was found stuffed in a freezer in Kuwait brandished banners demanding justice as her coffin was returned home on Saturday.
The family of Joanna Demafelis openly wept as the white casket was unloaded at an airport cargo terminal in the central city of Iloilo.
“Justice for Joanna D. Demafelis,” was emblazoned on banners and on T-shirts worn by the crowd which included a congressman and local officials expressing their anger over the death of the Filipina whose body was found in a freezer in Kuwait earlier this month.
The incident worsened a diplomatic flap between the Philippines and Kuwait with President Rodrigo Duterte alleging that Arab employers routinely rape their Filipina workers, force them to work 21 hours a day and feed them scraps.
He has also banned the deployment of new workers to Kuwait and ordered airlines to fly home any of the 252,000 Filipinos working there who wish to return.
Meanwhile, a panel in the House of Representatives has created a technical working group that will fine-tune House Bills 674 and 1983, both seeking to expedite the process of repatriation of Filipino migrant workers.
The House committee on overseas workers affairs backed the approval of bills that seek to amend Republic Act 8042 which provides repatriation remedy for OFWs but does not specify a definite period of time within which it must be completed.
Lawmakers said in most cases, the repatriation process could take months or even years, giving rise to situations where pleas by OFWs to return home are lost due to bureaucratic red tape and procedural bottlenecks.
The bills aim to address the loopholes of existing regulations and other obstacles to immediate repatriation.
About 10 million Filipinos work abroad and the money they remit back is a lifeline of the Philippine economy.
Their treatment abroad is often a political issue at home.
Kuwait’s foreign minister previously condemned Manila’s “escalation,” of the issue but Philippine Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano said Friday the Kuwaiti ambassador had assured him his government was “outraged” over the killing and determined to find those responsible.
A distraught Eva Demafelis could only say “I am sad,” when asked by reporters about the death of her daughter.
“She does not deserve the manner in which she died. She was beaten up,” said an aunt, Rosela Demafelis Taunan, referring to local news reports about the 29-year-old maid’s death.
“She decided to go abroad because she wanted to help her parents repair the house that was damaged by Super Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan),” in 2013, the aunt recalled.
The slain maid also wanted to finance the college education of her youngest sister, Joyce, the aunt said.
Residents lined the highway as the funeral convoy escorted by police cars and motorcycles made its way to Demafelis’ hometown, about a two hour’s drive from the city.
Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello said late Friday that “working groups” from both countries were discussing forging a memorandum for protecting the rights of Filipinos in Kuwait, many of whom are working as maids.
Domestic workers in that country are not covered by ordinary labor legislation, and accounts of Filipinas being subjected to abuse and exploitation in the Middle East have long circulated.
At a congressiomal hearing, committee chairperson Rep. Jesulito Manalo of Angkla Party-list, said the bills are timely and relevant in light of the declaration of President Rodrigo Duterte to ban deployment of OFWs to Kuwait, with a directive to repatriate all those who already want to go home to the Philippines.
Diwa Party-list Rep. Emmeline Aglipay-Villar, author of HB 674, said the bills, if enacted into law, would help ensure that requests for repatriation would be processed with the appropriate urgency.
For her part, Rep. Estrelita Suansing of Nueva Ecija, author of HB 1983, said unlike expulsion and deportation which were actions of sovereign states, repatriation was defined as a personal right under specific conditions and described in various international instruments, such as the Geneva Convention and Protocols.
The bills mandate the State to afford full protection to labor, local and overseas, organized and unorganized, and promote full employment and equality of employment for all.
It requires the OWWA to ensure that a migrant worker is repatriated within 15 working days from the date that notice of approval is given to the requesting party.
If the migrant worker is deceased, the repatriation shall be completed within 30 working days from receipt of the written request by the OWWA’s Field Service Office, Workers Assistance Division, Regional OWWA Units or other appropriate offices.
The bills also require all licensed recruitment agencies to provide the POEA with their current and active email addresses and penalize agencies which fail to respond to communications from POEA concerning repatriation.
Moreover, the bills mandate the expeditious replacement of detained passports to address the unscrupulous practice of employers of confiscating the passports of OFWs.
Any fees required shall be considered part of the repatriation cost to be shouldered by the principal, agency or OWWA as the case may be, subject to appropriate reimbursement.