Body of Filipina maid found in freezer flown home from Kuwait

Joanna Demafelis' death prompted government to ban Filipinos from taking jobs in Kuwait

Jessica (C), sister of Filipina worker Joanna Demafelis whose body was found inside a freezer in Kuwait, cries in front of the wooden casket containing her sister shortly after arriving at the international airport in Manila on February 16, 2018.
The Philippines on February 12 expanded a ban on its citizens working in Kuwait after President Rodrigo Duterte angrily lashed out at the Gulf state over reports of Filipino workers suffering abuse and exploitation. Authorities say 252,000 Filipinos work in Kuwait, many as maids, yet domestic workers there are not covered by ordinary labour legislation. / AFP PHOTO / TED ALJIBE
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The body of a Filipino housemaid found stuffed in a freezer in Kuwait was flown home to her grieving family on Friday, focusing attention on the plight of millions of mostly poor Filipinos toiling abroad.

As Joanna Daniela Demafelis' remains were wheeled to the Manila airport's cargo bay, her sister broke into tears and embraced the casket before being pulled back and consoled. A brother wept quietly, speechless and overwhelmed by emotion.

"I hope my sister will be given justice," Demafelis' brother, Jojit Demafelis, said later.

Demafelis' body was found on February 6 in a Kuwait City apartment that had reportedly been abandoned for more than a year. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said her body bore torture marks and there were indications she was strangled.

Her death is the latest overseas tragedy to befall a worker from the Philippines, a major labour exporter with about a tenth of its 100 million people working abroad. The workers have been called the country's heroes because the income they send home has propped up the South-East Asian nation's economy for decades, accounting for about 10 per cent of annual gross domestic product.

Philippine officials are under increasing pressure to do more to monitor the safety of its worldwide diaspora of mostly house maids, construction workers and labourers. There are also calls for the government to boost employment and living standards at home, where nearly one in four people live in poverty, so that fewer people need to find work abroad.

Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano stood with the Demafelis family at the airport on Friday and said a prayer.

"Her death is very tragic but will also be a rallying point for all of the government agencies to be more aggressive abroad in helping our OFWs be protected," Mr Cayetano said, using the acronym for overseas foreign workers.

Mr Duterte has ordered a ban on the deployment of new Filipino workers to Kuwait, where he said some Filipina workers have committed suicide due to abuses.

Mr Cayetano said Kuwait had expressed outrage over Demafelis' death and promised do everything it could to render justice. He said the Philippines lodged a protest over the case and at least six other recent deaths, mostly of Filipino housemaids, in Kuwait and asked that the Philippine embassy be given access to investigations by Kuwaiti authorities.

The Demafelis family told Associated Press that Joanna was 29 years old and the sixth of nine children born into a poor farming family in the central province of Iloilo. She left for Kuwait in 2014 to be employed by a Syrian and Lebanese couple and had never told anyone back home that she was being mistreated.

Kuwaiti police believe Demafelis had been hired by a Lebanese man and his Syrian wife who later left the country, according to local media reports citing police. Authorities found her body when they raided the apartment over an eviction notice.

It s not clear how the woman remained missing for so long or if Kuwaiti police had requested extradition for the Lebanese man and his Syrian wife. Police said the two are wanted on suspicion of writing bad cheques.


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Philippine officials say they are re-examining how to better detect and stop abuse of its workers abroad. A Filipino labour officer in Kuwait has been recalled after reportedly failing to adequately help Demafelis' family when they reported that she was missing.

"If there is a complaint already, even if we can help them, it's still too late like when they're already dead," Mr Cayetano said. "They should have been helped when we found out that there was abuse or as soon as they lost contact with their family."

Still, the sheer number of Filipino workers abroad makes monitoring their well-being an overwhelming task. That is often complicated by the workers not having proper travel and work documents, such as in Kuwait where nearly 11,000 of the more than 252,000 Filipino workers are in the country illegally or not properly authorised.

The Philippines has banned the employment of its workers in some countries, but many desperate Filipinos chose to stay, even in war-torn Iraq and Syria.

"Despite the offer to repatriate, to pay for their tickets, many chose to stay because there is no employment or less employment possibilities or they'll earn much less money in the Philippines," Mr Cayetano said.

He said the long-term solution was for the Philippines to strengthen its economy so Filipinos would not be forced to look for work abroad.

A pro-labour group, Migrante International, said it was ironic for Mr Duterte to ask Kuwait to improve the plight of Filipino workers there when they left the Philippines because of difficult conditions, including low wages, unfair labour contracts and recent tax increases that have caused commodity price hikes. It called Mr Duterte and past presidents "false messiahs".

Mr Duterte said last week he did not want a quarrel with Kuwait, but warned he may resort to drastic steps, such as a complete ban on the deployment of Filipino workers, if Kuwait and other governments fail to safeguard Filipinos.

Mr Duterte said 82 Filipino workers died in Kuwait in 2016 and that number rose to 103 last year, though he did not specify the causes.