The Philippine government imposed a total ban on the migration of domestic workers to Kuwait in January 2020, after Filipino domestic worker Jeanelyn Villavende was found dead from severe injuries at her employers’ home in December 2019. Her employers have been charged with her murder. A Philippine government report revealed that Villavende, 26, was sexually abused before she died. The Philippine government lifted the ban about a month later, stating that appropriate charges against the perpetrators were being filed in a Kuwaiti court.
The case of Villavende is only one among countless others of abuse, mistreatment and tragedy involving migrant domestic workers in the Gulf region. As one official from the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration noted, a significant proportion of the most serious abuses against Filipino workers abroad happen in the Gulf. About 90 per cent of these cases concern domestic workers.
The Philippines has implemented a ban on domestic workers travelling to Kuwait before. In 2018, the two countries engaged in a diplomatic row when another Filipino domestic worker in Kuwait, Joanna Demafelis, was found dead inside a freezer in an abandoned house. The ban was lifted several months later, when the two governments signed an agreement protecting the rights and welfare of Filipino workers in Kuwait. But the rights prescribed in the agreement are minimal. The agreement forbids employers from confiscating the passports and mobile phones of workers, and workers are entitled to food, housing and health insurance.
Migrant workers are placed in vulnerable positions in relation to their employers, because their employers sponsor their visas to work in the Gulf. Disagreeing with their employer can lead to their immediate deportation. The live-in work arrangements of many domestic workers further increase their vulnerability. Unlike other types of migrant workers, their work is considered outside the coverage of public regulations or monitoring, under the reasoning that such oversight could impinge upon the privacy of the employer’s home. This prevents a third party from checking what is going on inside the house until a serious case happens.
Many migrant domestic workers in the Gulf lack freedom of movement. They live and work in suburban residential areas without public transportation, often without days off, so they cannot simply escape when abuse begins. Even if they manage to leave, they may struggle to reach the Philippine embassy or a shelter without assistance.
Since the 1990s, the Philippine government has implemented temporary migration bans in response to tragedies involving female domestic workers and entertainers. But it is unclear whether these measures are effective.
These bans exert diplomatic pressure on the host country and signal to Filipino citizens at home that the government is committed to taking strong action. But any further effect is limited. The ban is typically lifted after a while without the implementation of systematic changes to prevent future tragedies. Gulf countries have responded to past migration bans by stating that they would simply look for employees of other nationalities.
Meanwhile in the Philippines, many migrants and their families who are happily working in the Gulf immediately call for bans to be lifted. The Philippine government cannot ignore such calls. Millions of its citizens work abroad, seeking salaries and opportunities unavailable at home. Their remittances are the largest source of foreign capital for the country. According to Kuwait’s Central Statistical Bureau, there are at least 216,200 Filipino workers in Kuwait alone. About 60 per cent are domestic workers.
A migration ban can also have the problematic effect of increasing the number of undocumented Filipino workers in Kuwait. Because there is no longer an official employment procedure, some find unauthorized pathways to enter and work in Kuwait.
Rather than ad hoc and temporary bans, there must be a fundamental transformation of the conditions under which migrant domestic workers work and live. The International Labour Organization’s Domestic Workers Convention of 2011 plays a leading role in promoting domestic workers’ rights and improving their working conditions by setting labor standards, just as there are labor standards for work done outside the home. Still, persuading the governments of migrant-receiving countries to ratify this convention remains a major obstacle.
While governments and international organizations apply diplomatic pressure on receiving countries to implement legal protections, policymakers can propose new forms of domestic work better suited to protecting the livelihoods of workers. One possible alternative is household service without live-in arrangements.
In the Gulf region, some migrant domestic workers work “freelance,” meaning they forfeit formal employment but stay as irregular residents in their host country. Others negotiate with their formal employer to work for other households, often by paying a “sponsorship fee.” In both cases, workers usually rent a small residential space and commute to the employers’ homes. ‘Freelance’ domestic workers are prohibited by law. But some prefer this arrangement despite the high legal risk because it allows them to live outside their employer’s home.
The Philippines is known for institutionalizing advanced welfare and protection measures for migrant workers, though such measures have lacked a specific focus on the unique vulnerabilities faced by domestic workers. The Philippines enacted the Migrant Workers and Overseas Filipinos Act in 1995, started pre-departure orientation seminars and implemented a policy of building up a workforce of skilled workers by providing training for migrant workers at home. After almost half a century of sending contract workers abroad — especially to the Gulf states — the Philippines should come up with practical measures to prevent tragedies involving domestic workers.
Naomi Hosoda is Associate Professor at the School of Global Humanities and Social Sciences, Nagasaki University. This piece was originally published over at East Asia Forum here.