Like hundreds of thousands of women before her, 29-year-old Joanna Daniela Demafelis packed her hopes and dreams into a small suitcase, waved goodbye to her family in a poverty-stricken community and arrived in Kuwait to take up a post as a domestic worker. She returned four years later in a coffin after her body was found stuffed in a freezer in Kuwait bearing torture marks, the couple who hired her long gone. The grief writ large on the faces of Joanna's parents and eight siblings has, understandably, been replaced with anger and protests demanding justice for her death and proper treatment for the millions of domestic workers like her around the world. President Rodrigo Duterte has banned any new workers being sent to Kuwait and offered to repatriate any of the 252,000 Filipino workers based there amid claims some are subject to abuse and violence from their employers. An estimated 10,000 are being flown home in the amnesty.
For many of those living in the region, domestic workers are an intrinsic and indispensable part of society. Maids and nannies nurse our children, maintain our homes and institutions and keep the wheels of everyday life functioning with ease. For the role they play in the smooth running of society, they deserve respect and proper treatment. As a workforce, they form an admirable powerhouse of industry and finance. About one-tenth of the Philippines’ 100 million-strong population work abroad and the money they send home accounts for about 10 per cent of the annual gross domestic product.
There are around 600,000 Filipinos in the UAE, some of whom are domestic workers. Many enjoy good relationships with their employers. For those who do not, there are increasing avenues of recourse. Improved labour legislation, including a draft law passed by the Federal National Council, offers increased protection of their rights and regulates the hours they work while Tadbeer centres have been set up to drive unscrupulous companies out of business and give workers a port of call. There might still be cases of exploitative behaviour and abusive employers but the measures are recognition of workers' rights to have their welfare safeguarded. It behoves multiple strata of society to protect those workers. A duty of care is the very least we can expect of those who benefit from their hard work with seamlessly comfortable lives.