She Left Home to Work 5,000 Miles Away, But Was Killed and Abandoned in a Desert

Jullebee Ranara, a Filipino domestic worker living in Kuwait, made a phone call to her family earlier last month, confiding that she was afraid of her employer’s 17-year-old son. By the next day, the 35-year-old had seemingly vanished, prompting her friends in the Gulf state to share their concerns about her disappearance on social media. 

Less than 24 hours later, on Jan. 21, her remains would be found beside a road in a desert, her skull smashed and her body charred.

An autopsy revealed that Ranara was pregnant, local media reported, with the baby believed to belong to her employer’s teenage son, who’s also the suspect in her murder. While the 17-year-old, who is not named in reports, was arrested shortly after the discovery of her body, Philippine authorities said on Saturday that they were still confirming reports that he had raped and killed Ranara.

Ranara’s death has sent shockwaves through the Philippines, sparking renewed attention on longstanding abuses plaguing Filipino migrant workers in Kuwait—especially those in the domestic work industry, known in the region by the outdated and problematic term “housemaids.” Philippine authorities are now voicing concerns about the rising numbers of such abuses and vowing to enact measures to ensure workers’ safety. But rights groups point to long-standing systemic gaps that have failed those trying to seek help while leaving the domestic work industry rife with exploitation.

“The public is not made aware of the real gravity of the rampant abuses faced by Filipino domestic helpers in Kuwait.”

Since 2018, there have been at least four cases of murdered Kuwait-based Filipino migrant workers that have made national headlines, including 29-year-old Joanna Demafelis, whose body was hidden in a freezer in an abandoned apartment for almost two years. Her employers, a Syrian and Lebanese couple, were sentenced to death for her murder.

In 2019, Constancia Lago Dayag was found dead, allegedly beaten to death by her employer. That same year, Jeanelyn Villavende died from injuries inflicted by her female employer, who was later sentenced to death for the killing. 

“These are only the high-profile ones,” Joanna Concepcion, chairperson of Migrante International, a global alliance for overseas Filipinos, told VICE World News. “There are other cases that are not visible. The public is not made aware of the real gravity of the rampant abuses faced by Filipino domestic helpers in Kuwait.”

There are around 268,000 Filipinos currently working in Kuwait, many of whom are domestic workers. They are governed by the Kafala system, a legal framework used in most Gulf states that accords employers disproportionate power over migrant workers, most notably full control over their legal status. Critics have pointed to the Kafala system as a key factor allowing the exploitation of migrant workers in the Middle East, especially among domestic workers who depend on their employers for food and shelter.

Bong Concha, the founder of Kaagapay Ako Ng Bawat OFW, a group assisting Filipino migrant workers in the Middle East, told VICE World News that the majority of the thousands of requests for help they receive daily come from domestic workers. Most come to them with complaints of employment contract violations, are overworked and underfed, and suffer from physical and emotional abuse, he said. 

“A lot of employers are treating the migrant workers as their slaves,” Concha said, adding that living with employers differentiates domestic workers from other migrant workers. “They are the ones dealing personally with the employers, they're the ones staying physically with their employer for the 24 months of their contract.”

On Tuesday, in response to Ranara’s death, the Philippine government suspended the accreditation of foreign recruitment agencies in Kuwait. A similar measure was taken in 2018, when Philippine authorities imposed a monthslong ban on sending Filipino domestic workers to Kuwait after Demafelis’ mutilated body was found in the freezer. 

Jessica, sister of Filipina overseas worker Joanna Demafelis whose body was found inside a freezer in Kuwait, cries in front of a wooden casket containing her sister's body shortly after its arrival at the international airport in Manila on February 16, 2018.

Jessica, sister of Filipina overseas worker Joanna Demafelis whose body was found inside a freezer in Kuwait, cries in front of a wooden casket containing her sister's body shortly after its arrival at the international airport in Manila on February 16, 2018. Photo: TED ALJIBE / AFP

The labor ban, which was met with criticism from the Kuwait government, became the center of a diplomatic crisis, as then-Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte railed against abusive practices in the Gulf country. 

“The Filipino is no slave to anyone, anywhere and everywhere. Every unlawful physical injury that is inflicted on an [overseas Filipino worker] is an injury I personally bear as the head of this republic,” Duterte said at a news conference in February 2018.

The diplomatic row ended with the two countries signing a labor agreement that granted greater protection to Filipino migrant workers in Kuwait. But reports of abuses among Filipino domestic workers have continued to capture public attention in the Philippines. In June last year, five Filipino domestic workers appeared on local media asking for help after they were locked up in a small room in Kuwait by their employment agency.

But there are also many more abuses that go unpublicized.

Lucy, a 31-year-old domestic worker from Mindanao in the southern Philippines, who requested a pseudonym out of fear of reprisal from her employers, told VICE World News about her two-year stint working at a household in Kuwait, where she earned just 120 dinars ($393) a month. She described a hostile working environment and felt she was walking on eggshells every day. Once, when she refused to surrender her mobile phone to her employer, the middle-aged housewife slapped her on the shoulder with a slipper.

“They think that we are always using our mobiles,” she said. “Every day they got angry with us.”

Her employer later ghosted her after her contract ended around 2019, leaving her with three months of unpaid salary as she struggled to reach them from her hometown in the Philippines. While she remains troubled by the experience, she has since returned to Kuwait to work in a new household, after being persuaded by her friend to return to the job. 

Ranara’s death has drawn responses from Kuwaiti authorities, with Musaed Saleh Althwaikh, Kuwait’s ambassador to Manila, stating that Kuwaiti society was “shocked and saddened” by the news. 

“Our justice system will not lose sight in ensuring justice for Mrs. Ranara,” he wrote in a letter, adding that her murder was an isolated case. 

But Susan Ople, the secretary of the Philippine Department of Migrant Workers, pointed to a rising trend of abuses of Filipino workers in Kuwait. She said on Saturday that they were sending officials to Kuwait to investigate this increase and to discuss preventive measures. The migrant workers department has suspended operations of Ranara’s recruitment agency, while senior officials from the department met with other recruitment agencies on Monday to discuss the welfare of Filipino workers deployed to Kuwait. 

Since Ranara’s remains were flown back to Manila on Friday night, her wake has been attended by political figures around the country, including senators and President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr.

But even as the country’s leaders descend upon Ranara’s hometown to offer their condolences, migrant worker rights advocates point to the piecemeal efforts at safeguarding Filipino workers’ rights and a wilful ignorance of these workers’ plights abroad. 

Concha said that over the years, his team forwarded numerous requests for assistance from overseas Filipino workers to the Philippine authorities, but has largely been met with silence. 

Meanwhile, Concepcion of Migrante International points to systemic flaws that have led to weak enforcement of workers’ rights agreed in the 2018 bilateral agreement, as well as the lack of an effective mechanism for domestic workers to report safety concerns.  

“We believe that Jullebee could have been saved if the Philippine government was proactive in responding to cases of distressed migrant workers—particularly domestic helpers—who make up the bulk of the reported cases of abuse,” she said. “And we know that the Philippine embassy in Kuwait and Philippine government officials know about the real situation.” 

As Philippine authorities consider how to respond to the mounting reports of abuses suffered by their citizens in faraway places, thousands of domestic workers in Kuwait, like Lucy, remain helpless against abusive practices from their employers.

While Lucy is thankful that her current employers treat her well, she is keenly aware of the disturbing pattern of abuse that could one day surface for disenfranchised workers like her. But today, her only strategy is to stay positive and pray for the best. 

“I feel sad because the journey here in Kuwait is not good. Sometimes here in Kuwait [we run into] no-good employers,” she said. “I trust in our God, and I’m thinking good until I finish my contract.”

Follow Koh Ewe on Twitter and Instagram.


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