Labor protesters demand pay hikes and an end to illegal labor practices, while President Duterte declares a permanent ban on Filipino workers going to Kuwait as diplomatic ties continue to worsen. Ana P. Santos reports.
Thousands of Filipino protesters marched together on May 1 in the global commemoration of Labor Day and called on President Rodrigo Duterte to deliver on his promise to end labor "contractualization," the widespread practice of short-term employment. They also called for an increase in minimum wage from €8.34 ($10.04) to at least €12 per day.
Contractualization, also known as "endo" in the Philippines, is the practice of hiring temporary workers — for a maximum period of five months — to avoid paying for long-term employee benefits such as healthcare and pensions.
Earlier on Tuesday, President Duterte signed an executive order ending "illegal contract and sub-contract hiring."
But labor groups say that it was not the draft they prepared and negotiated with the labor department, and demanded that the government stop its own internal practice of temporary hiring.
"The public sector has about 595,000 temporary workers. Their contracts are just continuously renewed, but they receive no benefits and have no job security. If the government is serious about ending the practice of contractualization, it should start in its own backyard," Annie Geron, president of Public Services Labor Independent Confederation (PSLINK), told DW.
Currently, unemployment rate in the Philippines is about 5 percent, accounting for roughly some two million people.
Unfavorable working conditions like contractualization prevent workers from accessing benefits and securing tenure. This, in addition to low wages, has pushed many Filipinos to seek employment overseas.
The Philippines is one of the largest labor exporters in the world, with many overseas Filipinos laboring in the Persian Gulf countries as domestic and construction workers.
Row with Kuwait
The labor protests come in the wake of a diplomatic row between the Philippines and Kuwait.
Relations between the two countries became strained in Februarywhen the body of a Filipino domestic worker, Joanna Demafilis, was discovered in a freezer after she had gone missing for over a year. An angered Duterte called for a deployment ban of new hires to Kuwait.
An estimated 260,000 Filipinos work in the oil-rich Gulf state, most of them as domestic workers.
Bilateral talks that were underway to improve working conditions for domestic workers came to an abrupt halt when videos of Philippine embassy officials helping a domestic worker escape from her employer went viral.
The Kuwaiti government expelled Philippine Ambassador Renato Villa, detained embassy officials who were involved in the attempted rescue and recalled its own envoy to the Philippines.
In a speech last Saturday, Duterte said that he had no hatred toward Kuwait but called for a total deployment ban to the Gulf state. He also urged all other Filipino workers to come back home.
"This would only worsen things," warned Arman Hernandez, spokesperson for labor rights group Migrante International.
Hernandez called for an immediate amicable settlement to the situation to defuse the tension between the two countries and safeguard Filipino workers currently in Kuwait.
Tension and hardship
"This is one step away from closing the Philippine embassy in Kuwait and that poses an even bigger problem. Where will Filipinos go if they are in distress or if even for the simple things like processing their travel documents and other consular services?" said Joan Salvador, international relations officer for the Gabriela Women's Partylist.
"It may be too early to tell what the effects of a recall of migrant workers from Kuwait will be. But a government pronouncement like this will have many operational challenges," Hussein Macarambon, program officer at the International Labor Organization (ILO) in the Philippines, told DW.
Monitoring returning migrant workers and ensuring they have adequate jobs will be crucial. Else, they will just be forced to leave the country again in search of better paying jobs.
"They would stay here if there are jobs here. That is the bottom line," Macarambon added.
In a speech last Saturday, Duterte said that he had no hatred toward Kuwait but called for a total deployment ban to the Gulf state
Meanwhile, Filipinos working in Kuwait expressed concern over underlying issues that may be simmering beneath the tension that now exists between the two countries.
"My concern is the feedback from the local populace — the things that don't get reported in the media like the individual Kuwaiti response to what's happening now. These include undue harassment and prejudice. This will cause extra hardship and stress among the Filipino workers here," Mayo Gayares told DW.
Gayares, who has been working as a security professional in Kuwait for 13 years, says that he will not heed the president's call to return home. "It is impossible for me to make the same salary in the Philippines. I have kids to send to school and retirement to think of," he said.