A labor row between the Philippines and Kuwait intensified Thursday as Manila filed a diplomatic protest after the Gulf state expelled the Filipino ambassador who had spoken harshly about the ill-treatment of migrant workers there.
The Philippines said it was deeply disturbing that Kuwait had ordered its envoy, Renato Villa, to leave within a week after declaring him unwelcome, Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano said in a statement from Singapore.
The expulsion came as both countries were negotiating an end to a Philippine ban on sending workers to the oil-rich state. It was imposed after the gruesome discovery in February of the body of a slain Filipina worker stuffed inside a refrigerator.
Cayetano said Kuwaiti envoy Musaed Saleh Ahmad Althwaikh had been summoned to explain Villa’s expulsion, but that the foreign office was informed that the Philippine diplomat had already been recalled by his government on Wednesday.
“The department served a diplomatic note to the Embassy of Kuwait conveying its strong surprise and great displeasure over the declaration of Ambassador Renato Pedro Villa as persona non grata,” Cayetano said in a statement.
The statement said four Filipinos employed by the embassy in Kuwait had been detained by police there, and arrest warrants against three diplomatic personnel had been issued.
Apparently, the foreign office said, it was in connection with an attempted rescue of Filipino domestic helpers who allegedly were abused by their employers in Kuwait. The mission was recorded and shared on social media, angering the Kuwaiti government.
In a bid to limit the fallout, President Rodrigo Duterte and Cayetano met with Kuwait’s envoy here on Tuesday when both officials expressed regret over what had happened. The presidential palace said after the meeting that it had yielded a positive outcome.
In that meeting, Cayetano inquired on the status of Ambassador Villa in Kuwait and was assured that “that he is welcome to stay in Kuwait until the end of his tour of duty,” Cayetano said.
So the expulsion of Ambassador Villa was a surprise, Cayetano said.
The Kuwait embassy, in its own statement, said the actions of the Filipino officials went against rules that governed “diplomatic action where staff helped Filipino house helpers run away.”
About 260,000 Filipinos live in Kuwait, many of whom are employed as domestic workers. The Philippine economy is dependent on foreign remittances, with about 10 percent of the country’s population working overseas and sending money home.
Two months ago, Duterte lashed out at Kuwait after receiving reports of a dead Filipina woman identified as Joanna Demafelis. Her body was stored in a freezer and bore signs of torture.
The foreign department said Demafelis’ Lebanese employer, Nader Essam Assaf and his wife have been sentenced to death, although the wife remains at large and the two could appeal their sentences.
On Tuesday, shortly after the meeting between Cayetano and Saleh, Duterte spokesman Harry Roque said both countries had agreed to move forward after resolving the issue.
The two nations had agreed to requests by Manila to assist distressed Filipinos in Kuwait and facilitate the return of at least 600 Filipino workers staying in embassy shelters there, he said.
Kuwait had also assured Manila that it would legally help Filipinos abused by their employers in Kuwait, Roque said, describing the meeting as “a frank but very cordial discussion.”
On Thursday, Roque described the sudden change of heart by Kuwait as unfortunate, even though he said he believed that bilateral relations would normalize in due time.
“Maybe they just wanted to express their displeasure because it was clear that was transpired was unacceptable to Kuwait,” he said.
“But we do not know what happened, that’s why the secretary of foreign affairs also summoned the Kuwaiti ambassador to his office today, to find out what really happened, because we genuinely thought that the issue was behind us,” Roque said.