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The Philippines Puts Safety over Money in Ban on New Migrant Workers in Kuwait

Filipina workers returning home from Kuwait arrive at Manila International Airport on February 18, 2018.
Filipina workers returning home from Kuwait arrive at Manila International Airport on February 18, 2018.

The Philippine ban on new migrant labor contracts in Kuwait following the discovery of a dead Filipina housemaid will remove a coveted source of wealth for workers until the two countries can work out an agreement.

A migrant labor “deployment ban,” announced in Manila last month, will hold until the Philippines and the Middle Eastern country reach a "memorandum of agreement" on employment terms and conditions, the office of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said Monday.

In the meantime, recruiters may not take any more Filipino workers to Kuwait, the presidential office said a day earlier in extending a temporary ban in place since January. The maid’s body was discovered in a Kuwait apartment that had been vacant since 2016. A Lebanese man and his Syrian wife who once lived there have been arrested.

The ban on new contracts in Kuwait will close down a source of income for Filipinos who hope to work abroad and raise their incomes, said Maria Ela Atienza, political science professor at University of the Philippines Diliman. About 252,000 Filipinos work in Kuwait, often as maids.

A labor agreement with Kuwait could make Filipino workers feel safer throughout the Middle East, Atienza said.

“It can be a model for other countries in the Middle East to follow, because of course that’s the area where many of our OFWs suffer quite a bit under their employers,” she said, using the common acronym for overseas Filipino workers. “There are reports of a lot of maltreatment.”

Search for higher income

About 2.3 million Filipinos work in countries from Canada through Asia and into the Middle East in search of income higher than what they can earn in the Philippines. Income sent home, known as remittances, came to $2.74 billion in 2017, according to Philippine media reports.

Wages for maids in Kuwait start at $400 per month. Professional workers such as engineers can easily earn more.

Average pay in neighboring Saudi Arabia ranks among the top 10 in a survey on pay for Filipino workers abroad. Saudi Arabia is also the biggest foreign employer of Filipino workers, with more than one million holding jobs at hospitals, construction sites and petroleum projects.

There have been numerous reports over the years of Filipino workers being sexually or physically abused in Saudi Arabia and other places in the Middle East.

After the housemaid’s body was discovered in Kuwait in January, Duterte said Filipino workers in that country were being abused and exploited.

Deal in the works

Kuwait’s foreign minister in February has criticized Duterte’s comments about labor conditions. On April 25, Kuwait expelled the Philippine ambassador after Philippine embassy staff had encouraged Filipino workers to flee employers' households, Kuwait News Agency said.

But Manila says Duterte has also “expressed profound gratitude” to Kuwait for offering jobs to Filipinos, setting what his spokesman called a “tenor” that’s “non-confrontational.”

On May 7 Philippine Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello and other cabinet members will go to Kuwait as part of a negotiation process, the spokesperson said.

“The Middle East has always been a very lucrative area for OFWs, so we want to make sure that everything is OK on that part of the world,” said Jonathan Ravelas, chief market strategist with Banco de Oro UniBank in Metro Manila.

The Philippines has asked Kuwait previously for an agreement that bars Kuwaiti nationals from confiscating passports or changing a Filipino worker’s place of work.

The two sides had reached a deal in March to protect employees and employers, news sources in the Middle East say.

China option

Filipinos will soon have access to another foreign market with potentially high wages, analysts say. China will accept about 300,000 Filipino workers and at least 1,000 as teachers. That offer follows a warming of Sino-Philippine relations since 2016 despite a festering maritime sovereignty dispute.

People who speak Chinese or have English-teaching skills will probably try China, say analysts who follow the Philippines.

“Those coming from the Philippines would find it probably more challenging, because they have first to learn the language, but the younger ones should be able to easily cope and learn the language,” said Eduardo Araral, associate professor in the National University of Singapore’s public policy school.

“They would have to try to see whether they can fit into the mainland (China), but I don’t see any problem with that,” he said. “Given the number of Filipinos working in Taiwan and Hong Kong, they should be able to adapt quickly.”