Duterte orders lifting of Kuwait OFW deployment ban

MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – President Rodrigo Duterte ordered Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III to totally lift the ban on the deployment of overseas Filipino workers to Kuwait, Malacañang said Wednesday evening, May 15.

"Upon recommendation of Special Envoy to Kuwait Abdullah Mama-o, President Rodrigo Roa Duterte tonight instructed Secretary Silvestre Bello to totally lift the ban on deployment of Filipino workers to Kuwait," Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque said around 8:30 pm on Wednesday.

This comes after the Philippines and Kuwait signed on May 11 a memorandum of agreement (MOA) providing additional protection for OFWs in the Gulf state.

Bello and Roque were among the officials who witnessed the signing of the MOA. 

The spat between the Philippines and Kuwait, simmering for months, reached its lowest point in April when Kuwaiti authorities expelled Manila's envoy over videos showing embassy staff helping Filipino workers flee allegedly abusive bosses in Kuwait.

"President (Rodrigo Duterte) directed me to lift the ban totally... both for the domestic and skilled professionals," Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello told AFP.

"The president deemed that our overseas workers are protected in Kuwait and he will no longer see incidents of maltreatment, hopefully."

Around 262,000 Filipinos work in Kuwait, nearly 60 percent of them domestic workers, according to the Department of Foreign Affairs.

Duterte in February prohibited workers from heading to Kuwait when domestic helper Joanna Demafelis's corpse was discovered in a freezer in her employer's home.

The president lashed out at Kuwait, alleging Arab employers routinely rape Filipina workers, force them to work 21 hours a day and feed them scraps.

Relations appeared to recover after a Kuwaiti court sentenced to death in absentia a Lebanese man and his Syrian wife for Demafelis's killing.

Following the verdict, Duterte announced plans to visit Kuwait to seal an agreement on workplace safety guarantees for the Filipinos working in the Gulf nation.

But after the rescue videos were released by the Philippine foreign ministry and Manila's ambassador was ordered out of Kuwait, relations plunged again.

Duterte declared on April 30 that the ban on Filipino workers leaving for the Gulf nation was permanent and urged his citizens to come home if they were being mistreated.

Kuwait sought to calm the confrontation a day later, calling it largely the result of a misunderstanding. Tensions quickly cooled and the two nations on Friday reached an agreement on worker protections.

"Even our labour diplomacy has improved and our relationship and diplomatic ties are now stronger," Bello said on Wednesday.

A copy of the agreement seen by AFP says that workers will be allowed to keep their passports and cellphones – often confiscated by employers.

It stipulates that contract renewals should be approved by the Philippine Overseas Labor Office, instead of being automatic.

Employers must also provide domestic workers with food, housing, clothing and health insurance, according to the document. – with a report from Agence France-Presse/Rappler.com 

Paterno R. Esmaquel II

Paterno R. Esmaquel II is a senior reporter leading Rappler’s coverage of religion and foreign affairs. He finished MA Journalism in Ateneo and MSc Asian Studies (Religions in Plural Societies) at RSIS, Singapore. For story ideas or feedback, email him at pat.esmaquel@rappler.com.

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