MANILA, May 16 — The Philippines today lifted its ban on migrant workers heading to jobs in Kuwait, capping a diplomatic row sparked when a murdered Filipina maid was found in her employer’s freezer.
The news comes days after Kuwait and the Philippines inked a deal to regulate and protect the hundreds of thousands of Filipinos who seek higher-paid employment in the wealthy Gulf state.
The spat, simmering for months, reached its lowest point in April when Kuwaiti authorities expelled Manila’s envoy over videos showing embassy staff helping Filipino workers flee allegedly abusive bosses in Kuwait.
“President (Rodrigo Duterte) directed me to lift the ban totally... both for the domestic and skilled professionals,” Labour Secretary Silvestre Bello told AFP.
“The president deemed that our overseas workers are protected in Kuwait and he will no longer see incidents of maltreatment, hopefully.”
Around 262,000 Filipinos work in Kuwait, nearly 60 per cent of them domestic workers, according to the Philippine foreign ministry.
They are among the millions of its citizens the Philippines has sent to work abroad, seeking salaries they cannot get in their relatively impoverished nation.
The money they send back home accounts for about 10 per cent of the Philippine economy.
Worker protection guarantees
Duterte in February prohibited workers from heading to Kuwait when domestic helper Joanna Demafelis’s corpse was discovered in a freezer in her employer’s home.
The president lashed out at Kuwait, alleging Arab employers routinely rape Filipina workers, force them to work 21 hours a day and feed them scraps.
Relations appeared to recover after a Kuwaiti court sentenced to death in absentia a Lebanese man and his Syrian wife for Demafelis’s killing.
Following the verdict, Duterte announced plans to visit Kuwait to seal an agreement on workplace safety guarantees for the Filipinos working in the Gulf nation.
But after the rescue videos were released by the Philippine foreign ministry and Manila’s ambassador was ordered out of Kuwait, relations plunged again.
Duterte declared on April 30 that the ban on Filipino workers leaving for the Gulf nation was permanent and urged his citizens to come home if they were being mistreated.
Kuwait sought to calm the confrontation a day later, calling it largely the result of a misunderstanding. Tensions quickly cooled and the two nations on Friday reached an agreement on worker protections.
“Even our labour diplomacy has improved and our relationship and diplomatic ties are now stronger,” Bello said today.
A copy of the agreement seen by AFP says that workers will be allowed to keep their passports and cellphones — often confiscated by employers.
It stipulates that contract renewals should be approved by the Philippine Overseas Labor Office, instead of being automatic.
Employers must also provide domestic workers with food, housing, clothing and health insurance, according to the document.
The lot of migrant workers is a sensitive issue in the Philippines that gets used domestically for political purposes.
The government has for decades hailed overseas workers as modern heroes but advocacy groups have highlighted the social cost of migration, tearing families apart and making Filipinos vulnerable to abuse. — AFP