KUWAIT’S foreign minister on Tuesday night condemned what he called an escalation by Manila after the Philippines expanded a ban on its nationals working in Kuwait.
Manila on Monday announced a “total ban” on new employment in Kuwait, including Filipinos who had already obtained employment permits but had not yet left for the Gulf country.
The measure came after President Rodrigo Duterte angrily lashed out at Kuwait over reports of Filipino workers suffering abuse and exploitation.
“This escalation will not serve the relationship between Kuwait and the Philippines,” Foreign Minister Sheikh Sabah Khaled Al-Sabah told reporters in Kuwait City.
“We condemn the statements of the Philippine president, especially since we are in contact with the Philippines at the highest level to fully explain the state of the Filipino workforce in Kuwait,” he said.
Duterte on Friday brandished photos purporting to show a Filipina maid found in a freezer, saying she had been “roasted like a pig.”
He also alleged Arab employers routinely raped their Filipina workers, forced them to work 21 hours each day and fed them scraps.
He asked Kuwait: “Is there something wrong with your culture? Is there something wrong with your values?”
Authorities say 252,000 Filipinos work in Kuwait, many as maids. They are among over two million employed in the region, whose remittances are a lifeline to the Philippine economy.
Domestic workers in Kuwait are not covered by ordinary labor legislation.
Human Rights Watch and other rights groups have documented widespread abuses, including non-payment of wages, long working hours with no rest days, physical and sexual assault, and no clear channels for redress.
The Department of Foreign Affairs said Monday authorities were repatriating 10,000 overstaying Filipinos from Kuwait, taking advantage of an amnesty program arranged with the Kuwaiti government.
Officials added they were eyeing China and Russia as “alternative markets” for overseas workers.
The Department of Labor and Employment on Wednesday issued guidelines governing the total deployment ban that exempted workers returning from vacation so they could finish their contracts.
The ban covers all types of workers being deployed for the first time for overseas employment in Kuwait, without distinction as to skill, profession or type of work.
“The major concern of the President is safety and the welfare of our [workers]. The ban is our way to send a strong message to the government of Kuwait and other Arab countries that the protection and security of our OFWs is foremost in our policy,” said Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III.
The department earlier suspended the processing and issuance of overseas employment certificates to all Kuwait-bound workers following the deaths of seven Filipino workers there.
He added that some 2,000 more workers in Kuwait have already applied for amnesty and are ready to be repatriated. The President ordered them repatriated within 72 hours.
As of Feb. 8, 2018, a total of 1,124 Filipino workers in Kuwait were issued travel documents stamped with exit visas while 800 are now scheduled to return home.
Aside from financial and livelihood assistance, President Duterte said the government is also willing to give land to repatriated overseas Filipino workers from Kuwait, who are interested in agriculture.
In his speech at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport Terminal 1, the President told newly arrived overseas Filipinos not to lose hope because his administration is ready to assist them.
“We are here to see to it that every Filipino is treated decently,” he said.
Duterte said the government is willing to give land to those who are interested in agriculture, adding that the Department of Labor and Employment also has livelihood program for returning workers.
Underscoring the necessity and urgency to act now to protect Filipino workers, the President said the government has enough resources to cover their needs as they return.
The President said the government could also look for other markets for Filipino workers. China, for example, was opening up for Filipino workers, particularly English teachers.
Japan is also another Asian destination for Filipino workers, particularly caregivers and nurses, given its aging society, he said.
At the same time, the President said that to create more jobs locally, he is beefing up efforts to encourage foreign businesses to come to the Philippines.
He thanked the country’s major airlines, Philippine Airlines and Cebu Pacific, for offering their planes to repatriate workers from Kuwait.
“I’d like to just say to Mr. Lucio Tan and the Gokongwei family, Lance, on behalf of our countrymen—salamat po and I will remember you for all time,” the President said.
The minority bloc in the House of Representatives on Wednesday backed the decision to ban the deployment of Filipino workers to Kuwait.
“The Minority condemns the inhumane treatment of foreign employers towards Filipino migrant workers, all over the world. Filipinos are one of the world’s most preferred workers because we are skilled, hardworking, dedicated, and competitive,” said House minority leader and Quezon Rep. Danilo Suarez at a news conference. “But the painful truth is that they look down and mistreat many of our countrymen who work abroad.”
But he also said the deployment ban might trigger a surge in the illegal recruitment of workers.
Senator Sherwin Gatchalian called on the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration to come up with a comprehensive plan to reintegrate more than 10,000 workers who are expected to be repatriated from Kuwait.
“As the government agency primarily tasked to the safeguard the welfare of OFWs, the OWWA needs to be proactive in steering the government’s efforts to reintegrate these repatriated workers into Philippine society,” Gatchalian said.
The Department of Foreign Affairs said 116 Filipino workers who were granted amnesty for overstaying in Kuwait arrived in Manila this week. With Sara Susanne D. Fabunan and AFP
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