Labour agreement in question as Philippines-Kuwait relationship deteriorates

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Apr 28 2018

UPDATE: President Duerte announced today, April 29, that the ban on Filipino workers to Kuwait is now permanent. 

"The ban stays permanently. There will be no more recruitment for — especially domestic helpers. Wala na (no more)," he told reporters, according to Filipino Star.

He also said:

"So once again, I would like to restate to everybody, especially to the Kuwaiti government. There's no bitterness in our hearts after all. At one time, we were also there to help you. There are a lot of, thousands maybe of Filipinos, whose lives were lifted from poverty because of the work that you have. We realize that."

"If my countrymen are a burden to you or if you do not like the way they are acting now, maybe it's the culture and your response also. We adjust to one another but I will withdraw all the Filipinos there. We will not ask any help from you. We will spend for their return."

Duerte says the Philippines will look for other labour markets, particularly China, to accommodate Filipino workers.

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Relations between the Philippines and Kuwait continue to sour following now-viral video footage of Philippines embassy officials rescuing Filipino workers. In one of the video clips released by the Philippines' Department of Foreign Affairs last week, a Filipino domestic worker appears to be running from a home and into a diplomatic vehicle. Kuwait has reportedly arrested four embassy workers involved in the rescue operation and issued warrants for three other diplomatic staff.

On Wednesday, Kuwait declared the Filipino ambassador a persona non-grata and asked that he leave the country immediately.  Kuwait also recalled its ambassador to the Philippines. The escalation seemed to take the Philippines by surprise, as Filipino officials previously apologized for the videos and reassured the media that relations with Kuwait remained strong.

 

 

However, while the Philippines Foreign Secretary apologized to Kuwait, he remained firm that the embassy’s actions were appropriate (and legal) because of the urgency of the workers' situations. Few details of the cases have been released, but the Philippines maintains that the workers’ conditions were 'life or death', that they had attempted to alert Kuwaiti authorities, but that they had been too slow to respond.

Kuwait remains adamant that the embassy violated the country’s sovereignty and disrespected its own laws as well as international conventions. Authorities accused Filipino officials of not merely assisting but encouraging Filipino maids to leave their employer’s homes.  

Kuwaiti and Filipino organizations acknowledged the need for the embassy to protect its workers but also disapproved of the video’s release. Sandigan, a Filipino organization in Kuwait which provides support to Filipino workers, criticized the video in an open letter. They say that the motivations behind the video were political, and made Filipino workers more vulnerable. Migrante International, a Filipino migrant advocacy organisation, echoed a similar sentiment. 

Indeed, it seems that the video more-so than the embassy's actions themselves have incensed Kuwait, particularly as they follow months of tense relations. Since the discovery of Filipino domestic worker Joanna Demafeli’s body in a freezer in Kuwait, the Philippines has banned any new workers from going to Kuwait. Philippines' President Duerte accused ‘Arab’ employers of inhumane treatment towards workers and that Filipinos  “endure rape, starvation, and other forms of abuse at the hands of their employers.” He asked Kuwait, “is there something wrong with your culture? Is there something wrong with your values?”

At the time, Kuwait’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Sabah Khaled Al-Sabah responded in a statement to reporters "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.

Kuwaiti MPs who celebrated the expulsion of the ambassador pointed to President Duerte’s remarks on Kuwait, and to what they claimed were “lies” about Kuwait in Filipino media.

Whether the motivations were political, or whether the Philippines felt that it could not wait to put the lives of these workers at risk, is difficult to speculate.  Following the horrific discovery of Demfaeli’s fate, President Duerte pledged:

“Every abuse committed is an affront against us, as a sovereign nation,” and he was “ready to take drastic steps that will help preserve Filipino life and limb.”

According to the Philippines Foreign Ministry’s own statements, it does seem that the embassy broke from its usual protocol, both in failing to coordinate with local authorities and more-so,  in publicizing a video of the rescue.   A sort of unspoken understanding between embassies of countries of origin in Kuwait has long permitted these embassies to shelter domestic workers, so as long as they are discreet. Sheltering ‘absconded’ workers is otherwise illegal under Kuwaiti law. 

It’s important to emphasize that the need for these rescues should not be understated.  Sources say that number of Filipino workers escaping indecent working conditions continued to be high this year and there is ample evidence of abuse despite Kuwait’s passage of a Domestic Workers Law.  And indeed, both Filipino and Kuwaiti organizations acknowledged the need for the embassy to support vulnerable workers, in part because of the difficulty these workers face in accessing justice mechanisms in the country.  Nearly 25% of Kuwait's documented domestic workers - 163,000 out of  677,000 -  are from the Philippines.

The status of the bilateral labour pact, which the Philippines had announced just a week ago was ready to be signed, is now in question. Some reports claim the agreement has been suspended, but neither Kuwaiti nor Filipino authorities have been clear on the matter. Statements made by Filipino authorities on Friday, April 27 indicate a desire on both sides to go forward with the signing of the MoU, and Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano plans to visit Kuwait after labour day.

The Philippines’ presidential spokesman said in a press briefing following the expulsion of the ambassador:

"We hope that this development will not lead to further worsening of bilateral ties between the two countries. We hope that this is Kuwait's way of just expressing its anger for which SFA Alan Cayetano had already apologized, and we believe and hope that the passage of time will heal all wounds and will lead to normalized ties."

President Duerte is expected to make his first public statement on the issue soon.

Advancing the rights of migrant workers throughout the Middle East