Overseas Filipino Workers: Slavery in the 21st Century

By: Francis Espiritu

Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) are persons from the Philippines who are living and working in another country, typically on a temporary basis.[1]It is currently estimated that roughly 10 million OFWs are located throughout the world, mostly working in Australia, Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Canada, portions of the Middle East, and the United States.[2]Of the 10 million OFWs, a majority of them are women.[3]It is roughly estimated that the money that these women make and send back to the Philippines equates to roughly 28.4 Billion US Dollars, roughly 10% of the Philippines’ GDP.[4]Given that a lot of Filipinos are not only skilled laborers, educated, and fluent in English, the fact that the Philippine peso in comparison to other currencies throughout the world is not as strong, gives incentive for many to go overseas in order to work, and send money abroad.

 

However despite the fact that working abroad allows many OFWs to produce enough money to not only support themselves in their new destination, it also allows themselves to support their families back in the Philippines. The unfortunate drawback to this is that many of these women who go abroad give up the chance of seeing their own children mature into adults, while they care for the children of their employers overseas.[5]A lot of what OFWs do is centered around sacrifice and the idea of wanting to provide a better life for their families in the Philippines who may not be able to work for various reasons.

 

Yet the potential to make substantial amounts of money abroad overshadows the darker side of working overseas. While not constant, there is a very high possibility that the allure of making a substantial amount of money will come with abuse, in which OFWs suffer different forms of torture, including but not limited to: beatings, imprisonment, starvation, mental torture, rape, and murder. Instances of abuse against OFWs, while likely to happen anywhere that they may be sent to, are mostly common in Hong Kong and the Middle East. However despite the grave consequences that OFWs may face abroad, the appeal of making enough money to provide a comfortable life for their families overpowers the potential of suffering harm.[6]

 

An OFW in Hong Kong found herself subject to verbal abuse not only from her employer, but from her employer’s seven year old child. Under Hong Kong government policy, domestic helpers are required to live with their employers, making them more vulnerable to abuse.[7]“[E]mployers are required to provide a bed measuring 6 feet to the helpers . . . the OFW had been sleeping on top of two washing machines, measuring less than 6 feet and enduring the stingy smell of being at the laundry area.”[8]Despite the abuse that OFWs in Hong Kong suffer, instances of abuse in the Middle East are even worse because the OFWs are not only subject to verbal abuse, but physical beatings, rape, and even death, prompting condemnation from the Philippine government and other countries.

 

In February 2018, Joanna Demafelis’ body was found inside a freezer in an apartment that may have been abandoned for at least one year. Investigations showed that prior to her death, Ms. Demafelis suffered physical harm. It was found that her employer Nader Essam Assaf, and his wife Mona were suspected of the murder and were eventually arrested in Damascus, after an Interpol manhunt.[9]The couple was eventually extradited to Kuwait, where they were tried and sentenced to death.[10]

 

OFWs are an important part of the Philippine economy, and many OFWs find themselves in the United States as well. While many reports of abuse are documented in Hong Kong and the Middle East, the United States is not exempt from such accusations or reports of abuse.[11]OFWs are easy targets of manipulation, exploitation, and discrimination; and the instances of abuse that they face in other countries should not only let human rights groups throughout the world take notice of what is happening to them, but for human rights groups in the United States to realize that these instances of torture and abuse may be happening a lot closer to home than may be thought. While not all OFWs may be subject to abuse, those that are subject to abuse, are subject to 21stcentury slavery.

[1]OFW,Oxford’s English Dictionary (2019)

[2]See The Most Popular Destinations for OFWs, Xpress Money, https://www.xpressmoney.com/blog/unwind/the-most-popular-destinations-for-ofws/.

[3]Laura,Philippines: OFW impact on the Nation’s economy, Moneytis, (Mar. 1 2017), https://moneytis.com/en/blog/living-abroad/philippines-ofw-impact.

[4]Id.

[5]Anthony Bourdain, Parts Unknown: Philippines, April 24, 2016(CNN). (Anthony Bourdain traveled to the Philippines and a portion of the show addressed OFWs. One of the women he visited was an OFW in the United States who cared for and helped raise a CNN employee).

[6]SeeAgence France-Presse, Dimafelis murder shocks OFWs in Kuwait, Inquirer, (Feb. 28, 2018), https://globalnation.inquirer.net/164643/dimafelis-murder-shocks-ofws-kuwait?utm_expid=.XqNwTug2W6nwDVUSgFJXed.1.

[7]Jasmine Siu, Hong Kong’s Domestic workers share stories of ill-treatment, poor living conditions and rights abuses, South China Morning Post, (Jul 20 2018, 8:47PM), https://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/community/article/2133421/hong-kongs-domestic-workers-share-stories-ill-treatment.

[8]OFW in Hong Kong Exposes Horrible Experience with Abusive Employer, Made to Sleep on Top of Washing Machines and Suffered Verbal and Emotional Abuse, Kwentong OFW, https://www.kwentongofw.com/2017/11/28/ofw-hong-kong-exposes-horrible-experience-abusive-employer-made-sleep-top-washing-machines-suffered-verbal-emotional-abuse/.

[9]Supra note 6.

[10]See Agence France-Presse, Kuwait court sentences couple to death for Filipina’s murder, ABS-CBN, (Apr 1, 2018), https://news.abs-cbn.com/overseas/04/01/18/kuwait-court-sentences-couple-to-death-for-filipinas-murder.

[11]See Don Kevin Hapal, ‘Trafficked’ OFW sues for forced labor and abuse in U.S., Rappler, (Jan. 10, 2018), https://www.rappler.com/nation/193360-abuse-ofw-trafficking-victim-usa.

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