Migrant Workers and Modern Slavery

Last February, the body of Joanna Demafelis, a Filipino domestic worker, was found in the freezer of an abandoned apartment in Kuwait. She had been missing for a year. Her autopsy revealed that she was beaten to death. Joanna had been working in Kuwait for four years and had suffered from overwork and maltreatment. Her death prompted the Philippine government to ban the deployment of Filipinos to Kuwait and the repatriation of hundreds of workers.  Joanna’s case is sadly not a rare occurrence. In the last two years there have been 185 deaths of Filipino workers in Kuwait alone.

In Saudi Arabia, there are reported cases of Filipino domestic workers being traded by their employers. These legally employed workers are offered for auction to families in need of maids and are then sent to work for the highest bidder. This forced transfer of employment is not covered by any legal contract. Often, the worker’s passport is taken away so that the she cannot escape her employers.

According to the Philippines Statistics Authority, “one in every two Filipino women working abroad is unskilled and employed as a domestic worker, cleaner, or in the service sector.” Overseas Filipino workers in this sector are the most vulnerable to abuse. While hailed by the government as modern-day heroes for the sacrifices they make to send money back home to their families, many of these “heroes” work under slave-like conditions. Although the stories of overseas workers who suffered from coercion, abuse, and inhumane working conditions are well documented, the reality of extreme poverty, limited employment opportunities, and low wages in the country still drive many into situations of exploitation and forced labor.  

                Pope Francis, speaking during the World Day of Reflection, Prayer and Action against Human Trafficking, described human trafficking as a crime against humanity. While recognizing the need for better law enforcement to arrest human traffickers, Francis called for greater effort at addressing the root cause of the problem. “I believe that the principal cause is the egoism, without scruples, of many hypocritical people in the world. . . Certainly, arresting the traffickers is a duty of justice. But the true solution is the conversion of hearts, cutting off the demand and drying up the market [for modern slaves].”

This call to conversion must be accompanied by immediate and concrete action. In response to the grave situation of modern slavery affecting Filipinos at home and abroad, local church groups have organized themselves to rescue, rehabilitate and support victims of human trafficking. The leaders of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, the National Council of Churches in the Philippines and the Philippine Council of Evangelical Churches, have signed a covenant of partnership to respond to human trafficking. These churches committed themselves to “become places of welcome, healing and hospitality for victims and survivors of human trafficking.” They are committing their resources to provide “places of sanctuary, legal support, emergency funds, and medical and psychological support to victims.”

It is sad that such efforts were too late to save Joanna Demafelis and other migrants who have lost their lives because of human trafficking. A great challenge remains for governments, churches, and organizations to rescue other victims and dismantle the structures that perpetuate such grave crimes against humanity.

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