On January 20, as passengers deplaned from a Manila to Kuwait city flight, about 35 domestic workers headed to a cordoned off space next to the visa- issuing area. They were the last of a few hundred Filipinos who managed to get to Kuwait. Just a day earlier, the Philippines announced that it would stop processing overseas employment certificates (OEC) to citizens traveling to Kuwait. The ban was not limited to domestic workers, as previous work bans have been, but extended to all Filipino overseas workers across all sectors.
Only those with previous work experience and already in possession of an OEC are able to either take new jobs or return to their old ones in Kuwait.
The Philippines has been lobbying for better treatment and protection for its workers as a slew of abuses against overseas Filipinos has been reported over the last couple of years. According to sources at the Philippines embassy in Kuwait, the number of distressed workers at its informal ‘shelter’ reached over 500 in 2017. More Filipina women escaping abusive conditions have also been housed at the shelter run by the Kuwaiti government.
The discovery of 29-year-old Joanna Demafelis’s body in a freezer was the last straw, drawing extreme denouncement by the Philippines.
The Philippines also announced that over 10,000 of its citizens in distress would be repatriated at the government's cost.
According to media reports, President Rodrigo Duterte has alleged that Arab employers routinely rape their Filipina workers, forcing them to work 21 hours each day and feeding them scraps. "Is there something wrong with your culture? Is there something wrong with your values?"
Kuwait has not taken kindly to the ban or the President's comments. Over 250,000 Filipinos work in the emirate, predominantly in domestic work and service and retail sectors.
Kuwait's Foreign Minister Sheikh Sabah Khaled Al-Sabah has said, “This escalation will not serve the relationship between Kuwait and the Philippines. 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.”
While Philippines’ indignation is well-placed, a ban may not serve workers well. During a visit to recruitment agencies and government offices in Manila following the ban's implementation, Migrant-Rights.org saw scores of Filipino workers waiting to fly to Kuwait. These were workers who had completed all formalities and were awaiting the final ‘fit to fly’ clearance.
While the workers were aware of the ban, they were determined to travel nevertheless and hoped that either the official ban is lifted, or that they would find alternative travel methods.
Past reporting indicates that bans of this nature only work to encourage irregular migration, which places the workers at a greater risk.
However, given the dire straits of lower income migrant workers in Kuwait, and the Kuwaiti government’s ineffective handling of the situation, there seem to be limited alternatives.
Even as the Kuwait-Philippines deadlock escalates, tens of thousands of workers are seeking clearance in Kuwait’s ongoing amnesty. As with Saudi's similar campaign, this amnesty seems to serve to ‘rid’ Kuwait of stranded workers instead of resolving the issue in any systemic fashion, or in any form that would provide some justice to workers.