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Kuwait, Philippines ties tense over migrant workers' rights

Ana P. Santos
May 30, 2023

The Philippines and Kuwait are locked in a row over the rights of migrant labor following the brutal killing of a Filipino domestic worker.

Overseas Filipino Workers (OFW) from Kuwait hold their documents as they queue upon their arrival at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Pasay city, Metro Manila
About 268,000 Filipinos currently work in Kuwait, including many housemaidsImage: Romeo Ranoco/REUTERS

Earlier this year, the Philippines stopped the deployment of domestic workers to Kuwait after the body of a domestic worker, 35-year-old Jullebee Ranara, was found in the Kuwaiti desert in January.

Kuwaiti police arrested the 17-year-old son of her employer in connection with her death.

The Philippine government vowed it would do everything to ensure justice for the victim.

The incident stoked tensions between Kuwait and Manila over the protection and rights of Filipino migrant workers.

And in an escalation of the row between the two sides, Kuwait recently suspended all new visas for Philippine nationals indefinitely.

The oil-rich Gulf nation accused Manila of violating bilateral labor agreements.

What problems do migrant laborers face?

About 268,000 Filipinos currently work in Kuwait, including many domestic helpers.

Last year, remittances from Kuwait to the Philippines amounted to around $597 million (€557 million).  

But rights groups say the workers routinely complain of facing sexual abuse and rape, human trafficking, labor contract violations and illegal terminations.

Over 100 Filipino domestic workers left Kuwait days after the killing of Ranara, according to local Kuwaiti news reports.  

Others who are not able to leave have sought refuge in the Philippine embassy in Kuwait.  

The shelter's capacity is 700, but it is now housing more than 1,000 workers, said Mark Aquino, Migrante International's coordinator for the Middle East.

"By our estimates, about 10 to 30 domestic workers run to the embassy shelter every day to escape abusive employers. The deployment ban and tension between the two governments has added to the maltreatment of workers," he told DW.

A Filipino domestic worker who ran away from her employer after nine months, has found refuge at the shelter. "We have food and basics, but with so many people here, it is so cramped and there is a line for everything. A line for food, a line for the bathroom. Everything," she told DW on condition of anonymity. 

The Kuwaiti government demanded that the Philippines close shelters housing migrant workers who escape from their employers.

But Manila has stood firm on maintaining these shelters, saying that this is non-negotiable. 

The Philippines Department of Foreign Affairs this month said all actions taken by the Philippines Embassy and government are "to ensure the safety and welfare of our own nationals."

"Providing protection to a country's citizens abroad is a well established duty of consular offices under international law and conventions," the statement said.

How have the tensions affected workers?

The tensions have prevented hundreds of Filipino migrant workers from taking up new jobs in Kuwait.

"Most affected are the workers who were already set to work in Kuwait. They have already spent money and incurred debt to pay for recruitment fees," said Aquino.  

Joanna Concepcion, chairperson for Migrante International in Manila, slammed the Philippine government's ban as an "overused" and "toothless intervention" to the chronic problem of migrant worker abuse.  

"Worker abuse is not something new and neither is the government response to issue a ban when a worker is killed. It is just the government showing the public that they are doing something, but bans only hurt workers," Concepcion told DW. 

"Workers will always go where the jobs are. What we need are more domestic jobs, not deployment bans," she added. 

The Philippines government did not respond to requests for comment from DW.

A history of tensions over workers rights

This is not the first time tensions erupted between Kuwait and the Philippines over worker rights.

In 2018, then-President Rodrigo Duterte banned the deployment of workers to Kuwait after a Filipino domestic helper, Joanna Demafelis, was found dead and mutilated inside a freezer in an abandoned apartment.

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The ban was eventually lifted.

The killing led to the signing of a labor pact between the Philippines and Kuwait, which provided more protection to Filipinos.

The deal included a ban on a practice of employers holding onto passports and travel documents to prevent workers from fleeing when abuses happen or disputes arise.

Abuses, however, have persisted despite the agreement.

Philippine government estimates indicate that there are over 24,000 reported cases of abuse. Concepcion estimates that the number is higher.  

Overhauling the visa system

Rothna Begum, senior women's rights researcher at Human Rights Watch, said the abolition of the kafala system — a visa system that ties a worker to one employer and makes migrant workers vulnerable to abuse — is a necessary step toward improving migrant worker rights.

Kuwait has introduced reforms to the system in recent years, with mandatory rest days and a minimum wage of $200 (€187) for domestic workers.   

"But by and large, domestic workers have been left out of reforms in the kafala system," Begum said.

She also called for migrant labor-exporting countries to join forces to secure more rights for their workers.

"There is a power dynamic at play where the countries of origin are competing to have jobs for their workers. Conversations around labor migrant rights turn into bilateral conversations with countries of origin trying to get their nationals into certain countries to land jobs." 

Edited by: Srinivas Mazumdaru