The Department of Foreign Affairs deserves credit for winning crucial concessions for Filipino “household service workers” in Kuwait with the signing Friday of an agreement with that Gulf state for monitoring abuses and upgrading work conditions.
The signing of the document by Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano and his Kuwaiti counterpart not only ends a three-week diplomatic spat, but also augurs well for the improvement of the situation of some 260,000 Filipinos working there.
Talking with sources at the foreign office, the labor department and the recruitment business, we get the impression that the Philippines-Kuwaiti agreement is a labor contracting reform breakthrough. Other labor-exporting countries can learn from it.
For years we have been hearing of horror stories, the most recent of which was that of a Filipina, Joanna Demafelis, who was missing for a year until her corpse, with signs of torture, was found in February stuffed in the freezer of her Lebanese employer in Kuwait.
Such reports of depravity and maltreatment had prompted President Rodrigo Duterte to stop the sending of domestic workers to Kuwait – an unprecedented total ban that sped up the talks for an agreement to improve the lot of Filipino domestic help.
Official and industry sources talking of the hellish fate awaiting those being deployed to the Middle East by greedy recruiters in connivance with corrupt officials have described Kuwait as one destination that maids should avoid.
Sources said that at least one Filipina is raped or sexually abused each day in Kuwait while 10 to 15 house helpers run away from their employers. Most of them end up at the Philippine embassy with stories of how their employers maul them for minor mistakes.
Regarded as chattel, many of them are overworked and underfed. Some are underpaid, if paid their salaries at all. Worst, there have been cases of suicide, with at least three desperate Filipina maids taking their lives in December alone.
We may not agree with Cayetano on many issues, particularly his handling of the volatile situation in the West Philippine Sea, but we have to give it to him for fighting for abused Filipino domestic workers estimated at 160,000 in Kuwait alone.
Sources cited Cayetano’s doggedness in implementing Duterte’s directive to protect OFWs at all costs – which tough stance helped secure for the Philippines more than what it initially wanted from Kuwait by way of an agreement.
During his visit to Hong Kong in April, President Duterte announced he was ready to fly to Kuwait to sign the agreement put together by a panel led by Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III and their Kuwaiti counterparts.
That agreement had been pending until, in exasperation, the President declared a total ban on the deployment of Filipinos to Kuwait after the discovery of Demafelis’ frozen remains. With the ban, Kuwait must have felt compelled to fast track negotiations.
• Cayetano wins more concessions
The Philippine panel convinced the Kuwaitis to accept additional terms that Duterte wanted – that domestic workers retain their passports, have access to means of communication, and have adequate food and rest, among other basic items.
An earlier draft agreement was not signed as originally planned, because Cayetano insisted on securing additional concessions. He informed the President that the situation on the ground had not changed despite the talks.
Abused Filipinas, he reported, continued to pour into the Philippine embassy and its shelter, which could accommodate only 300 runaways, was overflowing with almost 1,300 wards wanting to go home.
Earlier, at least 5,000 of the more than 10,000 Filipinos illegally staying in Kuwait were flown home for free by Philippine Airlines and Cebu Pacific from Feb. 11 to April 22 in response to the President’s call for the flag carriers to assist stranded OFWs.
Then the public uproar in Manila over the “rescue” of distressed Filipinos by embassy personnel and the videos being uploaded in social media appear to have exerted unintended pressure on Kuwait to grant more concessions.
Cayetano was thus able to convince Kuwait to agree to the repatriation of more than 800 Filipinos stranded in the embassy, the rescue and repatriation of more than a hundred other domestic workers, the setting up of additional shelters, the forming of a special police unit to help the embassy 24/7 in responding quickly to cases of exploitation and abuse, the release of the four drivers who had been detained for assisting in the rescue, and the withdrawal of the arrest warrants and the return to Manila of the three diplomats who led some of the rescues.
Focusing on improved working conditions for Filipinos, the agreement with a life of four years provides for round-the-clock assistance to Filipino domestic workers in case they encounter problems with their employers.
It allows them to keep their passports or have them deposited with the Philippine embassy for safekeeping. It also lets them have and use cellphones and assures them of adequate food, accommodation, and even health insurance.
In addition, the agreement requires employers to open a bank account in the names of the domestic workers to ensure that they receive on time the salaries stipulated in their contracts.
The agreement provides for inspection and monitoring of work conditions, and creates a committee of senior Philippines and Kuwait officials to carry out the provisions of the agreement. It blacklists employers with records of contract violations or abuse.
The agreement also gives an aggrieved worker access to the services of Kuwait’s Department of Domestic Labor, which shall settle disputes within 14 days from the filing of the complaint.
New recruitment shall be made only through licensed agencies, which are prohibited from charging or deducting the cost of deployment from the worker’s salary or imposing any salary deduction. Those who have transferred to new employers will receive a copy of a Kuwaiti government-approved contract.
While the agreement is not expected to eliminate altogether maltreatment and abuse of Filipino domestic workers, the approved mechanisms should minimize malpractices. It contains safeguards against exploitation and abuse, and lays down a procedure for quick response should such cases arise.
Let’s now see how unscrupulous recruiters in the two countries, in cahoots with corrupt labor officials, go around the safeguards in the new Philippines-Kuwaiti agreement.