No slave: OFWs fight back

Marissa Begonia, domestic worker and coordinator in The Voice of Domestic Workers in the United Kingdom (formerly Justice for Domestic Workers)

Long before President Rodrigo Duterte expressed outrage over the violent death of Filipina domestic worker Joanna Daniela Demafelis in Kuwait, this middle east nation that is about 17 times smaller than the Philippines, has been a virtual kill zone for overseas Filipino workers (OFWs).

The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) reported a total of 47 OFW deaths in Kuwait  in 2013 alone.

Adelyn Sumin-ao, a domestic worker from Bukidnon, was killed in Kuwait in 2012. Her death was earlier declared a suicide until a report from the Philippine Embassy dated January 5 of that year, showed that Sumin-ao’s death was caused by the blows she received from her employer.

Receptionist Juvy Montesoso was found dead after falling from the 8th floor of a building in Kuwait in 2011. Kuwait authorities also ruled her death was a suicide but Montesoso’s parents said their daughter, who regularly gave financial support for her child in the Philippines, could not have taken her own life.

In October 2010, GMA Online News reported the discovery of the decomposing body of OFW Jenny Dechosa, 33, in between the air-conditioning units on the roof of Hall No. 5 at the Kuwait International Fair grounds in Mishref.

Carmen, Cotabato native Fatima Maulana, a domestic worker, was raped and killed in Kuwait’s Kabd desert in 2008.

Some 185 deaths of OFWs in Kuwait have been reported over the last two years, as cited by Senator Joel Villanueva, chair of the committee on labor, employment and human resources development.


As far back as 2006, the Los Angeles Times reported that many Filipina maids in Kuwait suffered beatings and sexual abuse, forcing them to run away from their employers.

According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), embassies in Kuwait received more than 10,000 complaints from domestic workers in 2009. The complaints ranged from unpaid wages and long working hours to physical and psychological abuse.

And yet, despite the deaths and the abuses, the Philippine government continued to deploy OFWs to Kuwait.

OFW deployment bans have, from time to time, been issued. But these did not include Kuwait.

In 2009, during the administration of former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, a deployment ban was announced, covering the countries of Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, and Nigeria.

Two years later, in 2011, the Aquino administration declared a temporary deployment ban to 41 countries and approved OFW deployment to 49 countries.

Kuwait and five other countries (Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Singapore, and Bahrain—all top OFW destinations, were not included in either list.

DFA officials said the five nations were only “partially compliant” with Philippine government standards regarding the protection of overseas Filipino workers (OFW) and  were thus, still being reviewed by the DFA.

In 2012, the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) listed 182 countries where Filipinos will be allowed to work, including Kuwait.

Over the years, it has been standard policy for the Philippine government to repatriate distressed OFWs from Kuwait.

In 2011, then Labor Secretary Rosalinda Baldoz thanked the Kuwait government for repatriating 80 distressed OFWs.

“We express our thanks to the Kuwait government for its assistance in facilitating the issuance of the OFWs’ exit clearances, and to the recruitment agencies for their close cooperation so that these OFWs can finally rejoin their families back in the Philippines,” Baldoz told the media.


Last Feb. 9, facing the media and the world in a press conference held in Davao, his home city, an enraged Duterte ranted: “The Filipino is no slave to anyone, anywhere, and everywhere.”

Slain domestic worker Joanna Daniela Demafelis

He added: “Every unlawful physical injury inflicted on an OFW is an injury I personally bear as the head of this republic. Every abuse committed to an OFW is an affront against us as a sovereign nation.”

A Manila Bulletin report said Demafelis suffered several broken ribs and contusion and trauma in the pelvis and kidney area. She also had internal bleeding. At the same time, several wounds were also found on Demafelis’ body.

Media reports said the body of Demafelis was kept in a freezer for more than a year and was only discovered when police entered her apartment.

With the death of Demafelis, President Duterte announced a deployment ban to Kuwait. 

He also ordered Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III to work on the repatriation of Filipinos in Kuwait within 72 hours.


Marissa Begonia, a domestic worker and union organizer based in London, England, expressed support for the Kuwait deployment ban.

“I support the stand of President Duterte against Kuwait.  For the first time may tumayo para sa amin [somebody stood for us],” Begonia said.

Marissa Begonia during a United Nations High Level Dialogue on International Migration and Development at the UN Headquarters in New York with Federation of Free Workers vice president Julius Cainglet

Begonia, 47, has been an OFW for more than half of her life. She has worked as a domestic worker in Singapore (1995), Hong Kong (2000), and London (2004 to the present).

“I have been a domestic worker for 24 years now. Through this job, I have been raising, educating and giving my three children the decent living they deserve.”

But unlike the ill-fated Demafiles, the feisty, diminutive, single mother of three has learned to fight for her rights as an overseas worker and for others, too.

For close to a decade, Begonia has worked as coordinator in The Voice of Domestic Workers in the United Kingdom (formerly Justice for Domestic Workers), an affiliate of Unite, the biggest union in Britain and Ireland, with 1.42 million members.

“Unite has a history of organizing and campaigning for the rights of migrant workers. In 1997, the won the campaign for domestic workers rights in England,” said Begonia.

She added: “May mga nire-rescue kami galing dyan sa [Some of those we rescue are from] Arab countries.”

Britain has a long and strong trade union tradition that began as far back as 1868 with the birth of the Trade Union Congress (TUC). The country’s labor movement ushered the T&G-Transport & General Workers Union in 1922 and the establishment of Unite in 2007.

As stated in the T&G website: “Trade unions started with the industrialization of the late 18th and the 19th centuries, which drew thousands of workers together in towns and cities to live and work in poverty. The success of British industry in the hundred years from 1780 was built on the exploitation of hundreds of thousands of workers who worked 14 to 18 hours a day for miserable wages in unsafe factories, and lived in bare and comfortless homes.”

T&G added that, “workers realized they could only fight ruthless employers and inhuman working conditions by banding together, and so trade unions were born.”

According to the T&G, the 1870s and 1880s brought organization to a variety of key industries: gas workers, dockers, railwaymen, farm workers, builders, laborers, ang other sectors. Increasingly, trade unionists were able to apply political pressure—to give working people the vote, legalize trade unionism and bring in laws to improve conditions at work. In 1885, 11 trade unionists were elected to Parliament, as members of the Liberal Party.

In 1906, the Labour Party was born—a key factor in pushing the Liberal government to introduce a variety of social reforms. “Among these were compensation for industrial injuries and state pensions, which laid the foundations of our present system of social insurance and marked the beginning of the welfare state,” the T&G stated in its website.


Begonia said that domestic workers are the most difficult to organize. “These are individuals who work in private homes. Reaching each domestic helper is very difficult. The first contact we have with most of our members is when they need support.”

Most of their members are runaways that have fled the homes of their abusive employers, she said.

Begonia added that despite the difficulty of having two jobs, she manages to balance her work—both as domestic worker and as union organizer.

“As domestic workers, we work very long hours. After my domestic work, I still find the time to work in The Voice of Domestic Workers. I sleep at 2 a.m. and wake up at 5 a.m,” she narrated.

Begonia said that she checks her emails while doing domestic work. “I check my e-mails. If it’s not urgent, I will answer at night but if it’s urgent, I answer quickly and also respond to the urgent needs of my fellow domestic workers.”

She added: “If I need to go to a meeting, I will ask my employer. As long as it is in the morning, I can go, but in the afternoon, it is difficult because I need to pick up the child I am looking after.”

Sunday is the day their union holds classes, meetings and other union activities.

Begonia’s union work has allowed her to travel abroad, representing her union in international conferences around the world.

As of 2013, England had a total of about 218,126 OFWs, based on the report of the Commission on Overseas Filipinos (COF)

And despite the decrease in remittances coming from the United Kingdom—partly due to the depreciation of the pound sterling vis-a-vis the US dollar—the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas said that remittances from Europe still went up by 1.5%, the BusinessMirror reported.


By and large, Begonia said, Filipinos in the UK support Duterte, even if their employers told them: “Your President is a killer.”

Still, Begonia explained: OFWs support him (Duterte) “kasi ang daming nagawa [He has done a lot] for OFWs. I’ve seen a lot of positive changes. Like when we campaigned to save Jennifer Dalquez from death row. I could directly get a response from his office. We won this campaign.”

Dalquez—an OFW in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates (UAE)—was charged with murder for killing her male employer. She was acquitted on the grounds that she was defending herself from her employer’s attempt to rape her.

Begonia added that OFWs in the UK see the direct involvement of the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) in their affairs. “They have introduced livelihood projects. There is empowerment; that there is life after a migrant’s life.”

The support for Duterte has crossed the English Channel and found affirmation among OFWs based in France.

“President Duterte hast the support of many OFWs in  Paris,” said Zita Cabais-Obra, the secretary-general of the Syndicat des Assistantes Maternelies et Salaries de Services a la Personne  (Union of Maternity Assistants and Salaries of Human Services) of the French Democratic Confederation of Labour (CFDT) in Paris, France.


The CFDT is the first labor union confederation in the private sector in France. It was the same labor confederation that in 1999 helped Cabais-Obra, then a domestic worker, after she fled from her abusive Paris employer.

A victim of human trafficking, Cabais-Obra worked as a domestic worker for six years in Paris until she became a full time organizer for the CFDT in January 2004.

Her journey really started in 1994 when an illegal recruiter messed up her entry to France from her hometown in Western Pangasinan. Her visa took her only to Budapest, Hungary, forcing her to go with smugglers. “I traveled on foot, in the middle of winter, to Slovenia, Switzerland, and Italy, until I reached Paris,” she recalled.

The unauthorized travel led her to forests, vineyards, across borders and rivers. It took this mother of four children more than a month before she reached France.

In Paris, she was in for more misfortune. Hired as a domestic worker, her employers took her passport and made her labor from 7 a.m. to past midnight.

Cabais-Obra sued her employers with the help of CFDT and in 2003, she got paid for all the hours she worked under her former employers, including damages for breach of contract.


In the course of her active involvement with the CFDT, she was elected in 2000 as a member of the CFDT trade union council for the employees of private individuals and a member of the sectoral commission.

In October 2003 Cabais-Obra was elected general secretary. “I am now on my third term of office. I have also been a permanent officer at the CFDT services federation since January 2004.”

As officer, she does campaigns and organizes domestic workers, baby sitters, caregivers, and other professions in the household services.“Most of the time, I am in the field to meet domestic workers, informing them about their rights in France. We organize trainings. I work with lawyers, too,” she said.

The CFDT is an affiliate of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), the world’s largest trade union federation. In her capacity as CFDT officer, Cabais-Obra has attended high-level conferences against human trafficking for labor in Vienna, Austria, organized by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).

She likewise regularly attends trainings conducted by the International Labor Organization (ILO), together with other affiliates of the ITUC like the CFDT’s Philippine counterpart, the Federation of Free Workers (FFW).

It has been a long, life-changing journey for Cabais-Obra. Now, 54, she has transformed herself from a poverty-stricken, elementary graduate-domestic helper from Western Pangasinan into a French-speaking, union organizer in one of the biggest labor centers in Paris, France.

She has her own secretary and a 12-square meter office in a building that is just half an hour’s drive from the iconic Eiffel Tower in Champs-Élysées.

Cabais-Obra receives a salary above the average 1200€ (P76, 860) received by domestic workers and is able to maintain an apartment.

“I support the ban against Kuwait,” she said and hoped that the President will also take a look at other countries in the Middle East, as well as the adverse effects of Operation Tokhang.


Last week, President Duterte announced the possibility of including other countries in the deployment ban.

Labor officials also left for Kuwait last week to seek greater protection for migrant workers there.

Remittances from OFWs continue to boost the growth of the Philippine economy. The BusinessMirror reported that cash sent by OFWs surged to an all-time high last December, and pushed the overall growth of remittances for the whole of 2017 above the government’s projection.

This brings full-year cash remittances to $28.1 billion, 4.3 percent higher than the $26.9 billion in 2016, and faster than the pace earlier expected by the government at 4%, the BusinessMirror said.

Meanwhile, troubles continue to plague OFWs, even in Europe. In Paris, the French government is set to unveil a tougher, stricter, immigration bill.

Zita Cabais-Obra of the French Democratic Confederation of Labour (CFDT), the first labor union confederation in the private sector in France

According to Cabais-Obra: “For me, this new immigration bill is not good for any immigrant in France. That is why many are opposed to this. Still, I feel that insofar as Filipino workers are concerned, we will not be very affected because we are not included in France’s immigration chart. Hindi nakikita ang Pinoy, kumbaga, walang bilang. Hindi katulad ng ibang lahi, [We are not seen, we do not have that many migrants] like the Syrians, Pakistanis, Algerians, Tunisians, ang others. Also, comparing Filipinos to other migrant workers, we are hardworking and serious.”

As of 2013, the Commission on Overseas Filipinos (COF) reported some 48,018 OFWs in France.

In England, laws passed by the British government for domestic workers have caught the ire of labor groups.

Narrated Begonia: “In 2012, the government announced it will tie the visas of migrant domestic workers—who are brought to the UK to work in their employer’s homes—to one employer. This means they will not be able to flee ill treatment for fear of being liable for deportation. The right to change an employer is a very important protection for domestic workers, it allows us the chance to say no to abuse. The government says it will make sure our employers sign contracts with us before we come to the UK. But if we lose our visas as soon as we challenge our employers, how will we enforce this? All of us came into the UK with written contracts, but most of us were either never given a copy or we signed it without a chance to read it first.”

In 2011, the UK was one of the few countries who abstained from supporting an International Labour Organisation (ILO) convention on protection for domestic workers, claiming there were already good safeguards in place. These protections have been removed in 2012.

Begonia makes a point of correcting media every time they refer to her kind as a “domestic helper.”

“Huwag mo akong tawaging helper [Don’t call me a helper]. I am a domestic worker. ‘Helper’ and ‘worker’ are two very different words. Changing helper to worker carries our desire not to be regarded as slaves,” she said. G



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