The Philippines on Monday froze the deployment of new workers to Kuwait after President Rodrigo Duterte lashed out at the oil-rich Gulf state over a sharp rise there in Filipino deaths.
Presidential spokesman Harry Roque said the ban was “for all deployment of workers to Kuwait” where Filipino workers were allegedly subjected to routine cruelty by their Arab employers.
“We will hold Kuwait responsible under the concept of state responsibility,” Roque told reporters.
He emphasized that Kuwait was obligated under international law to compensate victims of what the Philippines considered “horrendous crimes.”
“And, of course, if Kuwait fails in this regard, then it will ensure international responsibility for an internationally wrongful act,” Roque said.
On Monday, the day the ban took effect, about 400 Filipinos who applied to be voluntarily repatriated from Kuwait were flown home. They represent the first batch of workers who were granted amnesty by the Kuwaiti government for overstaying without a valid visa.
No spokesman or diplomat from the Kuwaiti embassy in Manila was immediately available to comment.
The Philippine labor and foreign affairs departments said all the returning workers would be given job opportunities locally, even as they vowed to strictly enforce the president’s ban order.
Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano said his department was coordinating with other state agencies to take steps in implementing Duterte’s order.
“Our efforts to protect our compatriots will not end with the imposition of deployment bans or the repatriation of our workers in countries where they are prone to maltreatment,” Cayetano said.
Those who would be flown home would be assisted in finding employment, Cayetano said, adding the 400 were just a small portion of the estimated 10,000 Filipinos who had signed up for the repatriation.
About 10 million, or a tenth of the country’s population, live and work overseas, making the Filipino diaspora one of the largest in Asia. Most are employed as seafarers and maids in countries that offer scant labor protection.
Based on official government records, about 500,000 Filipinos are in Kuwait, and there are more than 3.5 million Filipinos scattered in the Middle East, officials said.
Remittances from the workers have traditionally kept the Philippine economy afloat, and the government has often called them modern-day heroes for their sacrifices.
Murder in Kuwait
Over the weekend, Duterte told reporters in his southern home city of Davao that he had received a report last week of a troubling incident involving the killing of a Filipina worker.
Police who served an eviction notice at an apartment in Kuwait’s Al-Shaab district stumbled on a grisly discovery – the remains of missing Filipina maid Joanna Daniela Demafelis stuffed inside a freezer.
Demafelis had been tortured and later strangled to death, an autopsy revealed. She had been dead for a year when police found her, according to Duterte, who cited a report from Philippine diplomats.
He said he had ordered a review of labor documents in Kuwait, and was shocked to find out that the records of abuse of Filipinos there were so “repugnant.”
In Kuwait alone, there were 82 reported deaths of Filipino workers in 2016, which increased to 103 the following year. Since December, there have been at least six deaths of Filipino workers in Kuwait, all under mysterious circumstances, the president said.
Also in 2017, Kuwait executed Jakatia Pawa, a 44-year-old Filipina maid, after a court convicted her of murdering her employer’s daughter. Pawa maintained her innocence.
Pawa’s story had made headlines in the Philippines, especially after tests revealed the DNA retrieved from the murder weapon did not match hers. The government dispatched its second highest official to Kuwait in 2010, then Vice President Noli de Castro, to intercede on her behalf but failed to save the Filipina on death row.
On the day of Pawa’s execution, another Filipina maid died after she was beaten by her Kuwaiti employer, but the story went unnoticed, according to Duterte.
“Sad to state it seems that our government is as useless as our foreign workers are helpless in the present state of things,” he said. “This is a national shame and yet we proclaim the OFWs [overseas Filipino workers] the modern-day heroes of the republic. Our words and action simply do not match.”
He called on Kuwait to respect the dignity of Filipino workers, noting that they are “no slave to anyone, anywhere and everywhere.”
“Every abuse committed against an OFW is an affront against us, as a sovereign nation,” he said, and warned he was prepared to ban the deployment of workers there.
“I could not stomach this. It is totally, totally unacceptable to me,” Duterte said.
‘Not the solution’
Arman Hernando, head of Migrante-Philippines, a migrant workers’ group, said the ban would serve as a wake-up call for the Kuwaiti government to respect Filipino workers.
“But a total ban is not the solution. We must not forget that our government still has the primary responsibility to protect our OFWs. Kuwaitis violating the rights of our OFWs is a clear sign of their impunity,” Hernando said.
“The fact that many of our OFWs are exposed to, and have been victims of rights abuses says something about the government's effectivity in protecting our OFWs,” he said.
He said a total ban on deployment without the government necessarily offering sustainable job alternatives at home would “not stop our desperate compatriots from finding work in prohibited places.”
Felipe Villamor in Manila contributed to this report.