Domestic Workers’ Woes Spark Tension between Philippines and Kuwait
Photo Credit: AFP
By Andrea Chloe Wong

Domestic Workers’ Woes Spark Tension between Philippines and Kuwait

Jun. 04, 2018  |     |  0 comments

In just a span of five months, the diplomatic fiasco between the Philippines and Kuwait rocked bilateral ties in a way never seen before, not since the establishment of their diplomatic relations in January 1979. The flashing news headlines revolved around Filipino domestic helpers working in Kuwait. Although this may be deemed an isolated case involving the two countries, the political ruckus that grabbed international media attention must serve as a cautionary awakening for both labor-sending and labor-recipient countries, especially those in the Gulf region.


The sizeable presence of Filipino workers in Kuwait generates significant attention in both countries. As of 2016, Kuwait’s 4.2 million population is composed of only 30.6 percent of its own nationals, while 69.4 percent are all foreigners. This demographic has since prompted the Kuwaiti government to regulate the flow of migrant workers into the country. Meanwhile, Philippine authorities estimate that there are about “251,000 documented Filipinos working in Kuwait. Of that number, about 163,000 are employed as household service workers.” The large number of Filipino maids fills the high demand in Kuwait for domestic helpers as “90 percent of its households employ a worker.” Such statistics pose a grave concern for the Philippine government, particularly its ability to protect its workers.


As the rising number of reported cases of abuse reveals, these maids are vulnerable to all forms of maltreatment inside the private homes of their employers. Most of the victims were subjected to physical, sexual or verbal abuse, non-payment of their salaries, and long working hours with no rest days. Despite these cruel work conditions, there are no clear channels for redress. Because of this, most domestic workers escape their abusive employers, while some die in dubious conditions. It is in this context that led to successive incidents of diplomatic tension between the Philippines and Kuwait.


The Start of Doom

First, it was the horrifying news about Filipinos committing suicide that raised the alarm bells. In January 2018, police investigations revealed that abusive Kuwaiti employers had driven several Filipino domestic workers to take their lives. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte reacted by suspending the deployment of Filipino domestic helpers bound for Kuwait. In turn, the Kuwaiti government granted an Amnesty Program that allowed undocumented and overstaying Filipino workers to rectify their status or leave the country legally without paying any penalties.

Second, it was the dead body of a Filipino domestic worker that reignited bilateral tensions. In February 2018, the corpse of Joanna Demafelis was found in a freezer located in an abandoned apartment in Kuwait. Believed to be stored for two years after Demafelis had been reported missing, her body purportedly shows signs of physical violence she had suffered while working in her employer’s home. Duterte fumed at Demafelis’ inhumane death and retaliated by ordering Philippine officials to intensify the repatriation of all Filipinos who wanted to leave Kuwait. In response, the Kuwaiti government extended the three-week amnesty period by another two months.

The Boiling Point

Third, it was a controversial video that saw bilateral relations going downhill. In April 2018, the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs publicly released a video clip of an alleged “rescue operation” of distressed Filipino workers. It showed Philippine embassy officials helping domestic workers escape the households of their employers in Kuwait.

The Kuwaiti government accused the Philippines of breaching the rules and regulations that govern diplomatic actions and of violating its sovereignty and domestic laws. In response, it issued arrest warrants against embassy officials for kidnapping. It also expelled the Philippine ambassador, declaring him “persona non grata,” and recalled the Kuwaiti ambassador from Manila. Following the political tension, the Philippine Secretary of Foreign Affairs issued an apology to Kuwait. Meanwhile, Duterte declared that the temporary deployment ban imposed since January would become permanent.

Two Points of View

The whole diplomatic fiasco has inadvertently put a negative spotlight on Kuwait. The growing cases of rape, murder, and suicide of Filipino domestic helpers painted a negative image of the country. Such negative perceptions were further reinforced by Duterte’s outbursts: “What are you doing to my countrymen? Is there something wrong with your culture? Is there something wrong with your values?” These statements understandably caused embarrassment to the government and people of Kuwait.

In its defense, the Kuwaiti government insisted that there are existing laws in the country to protect the welfare of Filipinos and other foreign workers. Kuwait’s Deputy Foreign Minister argued that there is a large population of Filipinos living in the Gulf state, thus a few cases of death “cannot be used as a criterion to assess the overall status of the Philippines’ workers in the country.” In fairness to the Kuwaiti government, it has already provided concessions to its Philippine counterpart by granting an amnesty program for Filipino workers and extending its deadline. But for Kuwait, the release of the “illegal” rescue video was not only regarded as an affront to its sovereignty, but also a grave insult to its national pride.

Meanwhile, the Philippine government justifies its deployment ban, repatriation efforts, and rescue operation as part of its mandate to protect overseas Filipino workers. Its actions can be understood in the context of a rising death toll and mounting cases of abuse against Filipino workers. The more than 4,000 Filipinos who availed of Kuwait’s amnesty program essentially reveals that many Filipinos desperately want to leave the country — most of whom have their own traumatic experiences.

In particular, the Philippines’ deployment ban in January was initially deemed as a reasonable move considering the realities of an overburdened embassy with very limited resources. In fact, the Philippine embassy in Kuwait has overstretched personnel with overwhelming duties to provide safe shelters and pastoral care, offer legal assistance, conduct repatriations, and perform rescues of abused workers. Aside from being understaffed, the Philippine embassy also suffers from insufficient funding to provide all these services to the growing number of Filipinos in Kuwait. Aggravating these constraints is the frustration of embassy personnel in dealing with the rigid Kuwaiti justice system and its sluggish law enforcement. Though their efforts may not always be enough to serve the large population of Filipinos in Kuwait, it is exceptionally unfair to accuse Philippine officials of not doing anything and failing to do their jobs given these restrictive conditions.

At home, the Philippine government has to satisfy public expectations in fulfilling its mandate of protecting the welfare of its overseas workers. For every reported Filipino corpse returning to the country, local authorities bear the fury of the domestic public clamoring for more government action. But while it is enshrined in the country’s foreign policy, this mandate can be conveniently exploited by Filipino politicians for political mileage and self-promotion. The controversial rescue video may be deemed as a public showcase to prove that Filipino officials are making efforts to protect its nationals, but it eventually backfired and was largely construed as a form of politicking. Unfortunately, it turned out to be a miscalculated and imprudent action that brought political tensions with Kuwait.

Labor Agreement vs. Sponsorship System

Because of the unpleasant situation that the Philippine government has misguidedly put itself into, it went ahead and signed a labor agreement with Kuwait to salvage bilateral ties. Signed on May 11, 2018, the agreement on the employment of domestic workers provided safeguards for Filipinos. Essentially, it prohibits employers in Kuwait from confiscating the passports and mobile phones of Filipino employees. The bilateral deal also directs employers to strictly abide by the agreed wage in the labor contract and instructs them to provide their helpers with food, housing, clothing and health insurance. Moreover, it includes a mechanism to provide assistance to Filipino domestic helpers on a 24-hour basis.

While the labor agreement was regarded as a positive breakthrough, its protective safeguards for Filipino domestic workers have been deemed to be minor. The provisions are astonishingly basic by general employment standards practiced in other countries, causing many observers to wonder how these fundamental rights had been allowed to be disregarded all this time. For example, the labor agreement stipulates that employers are forbidden to confiscate their employees’ passports. This in itself is illegal in the first place since passports are technically the property of the issuing country, in this case the Philippine government. Apparently, the provisions mentioned have not been enjoyed by Filipino domestic workers in Kuwait, and this labor agreement had to be signed in order to enshrine what should already have been the basic entitlements of employees in general and overseas workers in particular.

The bilateral confrontation must serve as a cautionary tale for host countries in the Gulf region to treat their estimated two million household workers with dignity and respect.

According to international human rights and labor organizations, the restrictive kafala (sponsorship) system is primarily the reason behind these persistent violations. The kafala system is practiced not only in Kuwait, but also in other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries such as Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. Under this sponsorship system, migrant workers may neither switch jobs nor leave the country without their employer’s permission, exposing the unequal power dynamics between sponsors and workers. Several international advocacy groups have condemned this labor policy for creating opportunities for employers to exploit the vulnerable status of foreign workers, and for reducing the chances of erring employers of facing the legal consequences of their illegal actions.

However, GCC states claim that the kafala system is necessary to control and monitor foreign workers in their countries. This makes citizens in the GCC tolerate the large presence of migrants in their nations without feeling threatened, since it essentially grants limited rights to foreign workers. These migrants can never become citizens, nor can they benefit from their host countries’ welfare systems. Nonetheless, citizens in the GCC like “having other people to mop their floors and sweat on their building sites.” This is the sad reality for foreign workers such as those from the Philippines, who are subject to the stringent conditions of the kafala system in Kuwait.

It is expected that the signing of the labor agreement will prevent, or at least minimize, the violation of rights of Filipino domestic workers in Kuwait that are discreetly tolerated by the kafala system. However, the major challenge for both countries will be the strict implementation of the agreement’s provisions. This will be particularly difficult for the Philippine government to carry out as it has to depend on commitment from the Kuwaiti government’s law enforcement agencies. Despite the protective measures put in place, the agreement fails to specify penalties and sanctions against offending employers and does not set out enforcement mechanisms such as labor inspections. Since their workplace is inside a home, labor rules on work hours, rest periods, minimum salary, and health and safety conditions are almost impossible to monitor. Local families may condemn enforcement efforts as intrusions into their private lives and spaces. In reality, domestic workers need more protection than most workers, but this is much more difficult to guarantee.

The Good and Bad behind the Deployment Ban

After the signing of the labor deal, the Philippine government announced the lifting of the deployment ban of Filipino workers bound for Kuwait. Duterte announced his decision on May 16, ending the recent bilateral tensions. While the labor deal and the normalization of ties are regarded as positive developments, the cancellation of the deployment ban may be deemed as an unfortunate decision.

The implementation of the deployment ban in January was initially viewed as a patriotic call by Duterte, who passionately decried the rising cases of maltreatment and murder of Filipinos in Kuwait. As he rhetorically asked: “When will this inhuman treatment of our Filipino workers end? When will the upliftment of their human dignity begin?” Many believed that the deployment ban was the answer.

In fact, there have already been appeals to put a moratorium on sending domestic workers to Kuwait. As early as 2013, Filipinos living in Kuwait themselves requested the Philippine government to stop sending household workers to the Gulf state, following numerous reports of maids fleeing their employers amid complaints of abuse since 2009. According to a statement by an online group, Pilipino sa Kuwait: “The Philippine government must heed our call and be moved with wisdom, good judgment and determination to muster the political will to, without delay, freeze the deployment of our women as household service workers (HSWs) to the Middle East and to put an end to the decades of vicious cycle of recruitment-deployment-abuse.”

The deployment ban had been expected to produce a long-term impact in protecting Filipino workers. There were various criticisms against the deployment ban since it did not necessarily stop the influx of workers. Instead, desperate people could still migrate through unsafe and unregulated channels without government monitoring, leaving them even more vulnerable to abuse. However, the expected result of the embargo would have been the reduction of future cases of abuse. It would also have discouraged Filipinos from going to Kuwait since the ban would essentially have tagged the Gulf state as “unfriendly” to domestic workers. While the deployment ban to Kuwait limited options for Filipinos, it would have consequently forced the Philippine government to expand alternative destinations for work, where there are more institutional safeguards and less cases of migrant abuse. And with the growing severity of death and abuse cases in Kuwait, the ban would have dissuaded even the most desperate Filipinos from going there illegally and risking their lives.

This is the reason why Duterte’s cancellation of the deployment ban may be deemed as a risky move and a drastic solution to end the diplomatic crisis. Allowing Filipino household workers once again to be deployed to a very conservative society where women are treated as inferior effectively increases their vulnerability. Despite the adoption of a labor agreement that is essentially hard to enforce, the kafala system and the rigid culture of Kuwait render these workers susceptible to abuse. Despite the criticisms levelled against it, the ban would have shielded future Filipinos from further tragedy. As one Filipino scholar explains: “We can neither adequately protect our overseas workers nor realistically hope to bring them back. The least we can do is to stop preparing their children for the next deployment.”

The recent political noise caused by the Philippines and Kuwait should resonate across other GCC states that employ foreign domestic workers. The bilateral confrontation must serve as a cautionary tale for host countries in the Gulf region to treat their estimated two million household workers with dignity and respect. These must serve as a warning sign for the GCC members to upgrade their domestic labor laws or amend the kafala system. Otherwise, they may face the risk of deployment bans on household workers from their countries of origin.

Meanwhile, the normalization of ties brought about by the labor agreement and the cancellation of the deployment ban must prompt other labor-sending countries to push for stronger and enforceable measures to safeguard the lives and welfare of their citizens. Countries that send household service workers, such as India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Ethiopia, to the Gulf region can learn from the insightful experiences of the Philippines in its multi-layered efforts to protect their overseas workers.

Diplomatic relations between the Philippines and Kuwait may have returned to being “diplomatic” again. Certainly, there are hard lessons learned that both nations and other labor-sending and labor-recipient countries should take note of. But without producing any improvements — particularly to the labor situation of thousands of foreign domestic workers in the Gulf region — the unfortunate lives of the Filipinos who suffered in Kuwait would have been all in vain.

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