Kuwait deployment ban signed, but may be lifted if suspects in OFW death charged – Labor chief

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, January 3)— The Philippine government will now officially stop sending new household service workers to Kuwait.

This comes after officials of the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) Governing Board signed Friday the partial ban on the deployment of overseas workers to the Gulf State.

The move comes in line with the recent reported cases of OFW deaths in the country, particularly that of Jeanelyn Villavende, who was allegedly killed by her Kuwaiti employer.

The ban— deemed effective immediately— will cover all newly-hired Filipina domestic workers in Kuwait. Those whose exit permits that were issued on or before January 3, may still be allowed to go, said Bernard Olalia, Philippine Overseas Employment Administration Administrator.

“They will be allowed to leave [for Kuwait] so long as their [Overseas Employment Certificate] was issued on or before January 3 at closing time (5 p.m.) today,” Olalia told CNN Philippines’ News Night.

He added that returning domestic workers or balik manggagawa are also allowed to go back to their employers in Kuwait.

The government, however, will consider lifting its latest move— once the suspects in Villavende's death are charged.

“He (Kuwaiti Ambassador) asked me until Monday for the charge to be filed. I told the ambassador that the moment the charge is filed, then I can lift the partial deployment ban,” Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III told CNN Philippines’ Source, quoting his recent conversation with Kuwait Ambassador to the Philippines Musaed Saleh Ahmad Althwaikh.

The Cabinet official also warned of a possible return of the total deployment ban should there be no accountability for the Filipina's case.

“If they charge the suspect— ‘yung (the) couple, then there is a reason for us to lift the partial deployment ban. But if they do not charge, then this may rise into a total deployment ban," Bello added.

The suspects— the couple of the household where the Filipina worked—are now detained.

READ: PH gov't seeks justice for OFW death in Kuwait

The Philippines in February 2018 also implemented a total deployment ban of Filipino workers to Kuwait amid numerous cases of Filipino nationals’ deaths, including that of Joanna Demafelis who was found inside a freezer of her employer's home. The ban was lifted in May that year.

The incidents led to a crafting of a labor deal between the two countries, which aims to protect Filipino workers in the Gulf state. Bello, however, lamented that some provisions of the agreement have not been followed, including the drafting of a template employment contract that would allow Filipinos to keep their passports and cellphones which are often surrendered to employers.

‘Nothing less than justice’

The Labor chief likewise assured the victim’s family that justice will be served. This includes possible administrative sanctions against the recruitment agency which hired Villavende.

“I told them frankly that 'do not be surprised if I have your license suspended',” Bello said as he recalled another conversation with officials of 5 Star Recruitment and Manpower Corporation.

“We'll ask them to explain their failure to give sufficient protection to Jeanelyn. And if their explanation is not enough to satisfy the administrator of the POEA including the board and including me, then we will have to impose some administrative penalties,” he added.

Olalia said he has yet to hear an official response from the Kuwaiti government on the incident.

Olalia added that he had also spoken to 5 Star Recruitment, but the agency said Villavende did not report any abuse when they spoke with her in the first week of December.

“When they spoke to our kababayan in first week of December 2019, there were no reports that she has been beaten up by the employer... the reports that she was beaten up was, I think it came only after the death of the OFW,” he said.

He said the agency instead was informed of complaints from Villavende of a salary delay as early as August but neither she nor her family sought repatriation. He added that according to the agency, Villavende’s employer allowed her to return to the Philippines in January.

Emmanuel Geslani, recruitment and migration expert, warned that if the agency indeed failed to act on a previous complaint from the employee, then it would correspond to a “serious violation” of POEA’s existing rules on monitoring.

“If there was an official complaint from the relatives of Villavende which would have reached the POEA that she was abused...the agency could have taken action like talk to her foreign recruitment agency in charge of the employer,” Geslani told CNN Philippines’ New Day.

CNN Philippines’ Eimor Santos, Catherine Modesto, and Dessy Bautista contributed to this report.