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Detractors deride Duterte for asking Filipinos to leave Kuwait
May 1, 2018, 7:57 am
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Kuwait, Philippines move to normalize relations – Philippines could seek the help of Saudi Arabia or Qatar

Kuwait says it stands ready to cooperate with the Philippines to address labor issues facing Filipino workers, but would also “act decisively” against attempts to breach its sovereignty.

Deputy Foreign Minister Khaled Al-Jarallah’s comments came in response to Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s announcement that Filipino workers would be permanently banned from heading to Kuwait. More than 260,000 Filipinos work in Kuwait.

Al-Jarallah’s comments Sunday were carried by the state-run Kuwait News Agency. A senior Kuwaiti official meanwhile, on Monday sought to calm a crisis with the Philippines over the treatment of domestic workers in the oil-rich Gulf state.

Duterte in February prohibited workers heading to Kuwait following the murder of a Filipina maid whose body was found stuffed in her employer’s freezer.

The resulting row deepened last week after Kuwaiti authorities ordered Manila’s envoy to leave the country over videos of Philippine embassy staff helping workers in Kuwait flee allegedly abusive employers. “This is largely a misunderstanding and exaggeration of some minor or one-off cases,” Deputy Foreign Minister Nasser Al-Subaih told reporters in Kuwait City. “We have taken a serious stance … but we do not believe in escalation and want to remain in direct communication to resolve the problem,” Subaih added.

Kuwait has also detained four Filipinos hired by the Philippine embassy and issued arrest warrants against three diplomatic personnel. Subaih said those suspected of participating in the operation to help workers escape were not accredited diplomats and that they were now holed up in the Philippines’ embassy. The foreign ministry was “awaiting cooperation” for their handover to carry out an investigation.

During its weekly meeting, the Kuwaiti government on Monday said it was opposed to any move “aimed at undermining its sovereignty and its laws”, the official KUNA news agency reported. The government added however that it will set up a special commission chaired by the minister of social affairs and labour to follow up “on cooperation with friendly states” on the employment of housemaids in Kuwait. Kuwait and the Philippines had been negotiating a labour deal that could have resulted in the lifting of the ban on Filipinos working in the Gulf state. But after the fresh escalation in tensions, Duterte said on Sunday that the temporary ban on Filipinos going to work in Kuwait was now permanent. Around 262,000 Filipinos work in Kuwait, nearly 60 percent of them domestic workers, according to the Philippines’ foreign ministry. Duterte said workers returning from Kuwait could find employment as English teachers in China, citing improved ties with Beijing. A Philippine labour group and a senator accused President Rodrigo Duterte on Monday of gambling with the livelihoods of tens of thousands of Filipinos in Kuwait, after he asked them to come home amid a diplomatic dispute over reported labour abuse.

The Philippines and the Gulf Arab state are embroiled in a row over what Duterte says is a pattern of mistreatment of domestic workers by Kuwaiti employers. The Philippine ambassador has been asked to leave following attempts by embassy workers to “rescue” distressed workers there, which Kuwait says is a breach of its sovereignty. Duterte at the weekend appealed to the “sense of patriotism” of overseas Filipino workers, known as OFW, and asked them to return home, where he said they would get financial aid and job opportunities in other countries.

Critics said Duterte had no way of guaranteeing that and should not ask those whose income was vital to their families back home to quit their jobs. Senator Risa Hontiveros called Duterte’s request “extremely reckless, shortsighted and uncaring”. “President Duterte should stop gambling with the lives and employment of thousands of OFWs, and the welfare of their families, in a desperate attempt to break the diplomatic impasse,” she said in a statement.

The Philippines imposed a ban in February on facilitating Filipino employment in Kuwait and helped several thousand workers return home after reports of suspicious deaths of domestic helpers. The flashpoint was the discovery of a Filipino maid’s body in a freezer in an abandoned home, and signs she was tortured.

Duterte said on Saturday the ban was permanent, although his spokesman, Harry Roque, suggested on Monday that a labour protection agreement between the two countries may still happen. Roque also clarified that Duterte “is not compelling anyone to come home”. Domestic helpers account for more than 65 percent of the more than 260,000 Filipinos in Kuwait, according to Philippine government data. The earnings overseas workers send home is vital to sustaining low-income families and a crucial economic driver. As many as 60,000 workers might return from Kuwait, said Jacinto Paras, undersecretary at the Labour Ministry.

“Those who have been running away, complaining of abuses and maltreatment, they can be free to return,” he told the ANC news channel on Monday. Migrante International, an alliance of Filipino migrant organisations, doubted the government could provide for those who return.

“We cannot expect our OFWs to come home if the root cause of their migration — poverty due to landlessness and lack of decent jobs — still exists and is actually worsening,” it said. Although the ban on deployment of Filipino workers to Kuwait (particularly the household workers) stays until the proposed agreement on their protection is sealed, the government of the Philippines is still interested in ‘normalizing’ ties with Kuwait following a diplomatic row, according to news.mb.com The Philippines presidential spokesman, Harry Roque, during a press briefing at the Malacanang said, “Until we have reached or signed a memorandum of agreement providing for the minimum terms and conditions of the employment of our nationals, the deployment ban stays.”

But if no labor protection agreement is signed, Roque said, the president has already made it clear that no new workers will be sent to Kuwait. Asked if the government was trying to salvage the draft labor pact with Kuwait amid the diplomatic row, Roque said: “Let’s just say, we’re trying to normalize as much as we could ties with Kuwait.” He noted that Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III and other Cabinet members are expected to visit Kuwait on May 7, 2018, which means the process of diplomatic negotiations and conversation continues.

Although Duterte had earlier urged Filipinos in Kuwait to return home and promised to look for alternative places of employment, Roque said the president was “not picking a fight” with Kuwait despite encouraging Filipinos to leave the Gulf state.

“The president was very somber. He was very calm. He says that if Kuwait does not want our workers then he would ask them to come home,” he said. “But he has expressed profound gratitude for the fact that Kuwait has employed many of our nationals. So the whole tenor was non-confrontational. It is not as if we are escalating it as reported by some media outlets,” Roque added.

Roque also clarified that the return of the Filipino workers was voluntary, assuring the government would assist in the repatriation. Kuwait has protested the rescue of distressed Filipino workers by Philippine embassy personnel supposedly without proper coordination and has already expelled the Philippine ambassador and recalled its own envoy from Manila over the alleged undiplomatic acts by the embassy staff. Philstar.com quoting Roque said Duterte is not taking the blame for anyone in connection to the diplomatic quarrel with Kuwait after the Philippine Embassy in Kuwait was accused of violating state laws and the Vienna Convention of Diplomatic Relations for conducting rescue operations for distressed Filipino domestic workers.

The Kuwaiti government was further angered when a video showing how embassy officials rescued Filipino workers went viral. The video was released by the Department of Foreign Affairs, which is headed by Cayetano. “If anything goes wrong there, I should be the one to blame. Just like what happened in Kuwait. I’m the head of government. And they’re finding faults supposedly committed by (Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan) Cayetano. No. It’s me,” the president said Sunday. “That is just his way, ‘The buck stops with me so blame me for whatever is necessary but the bottomline is we cannot afford another (Joanna) Demafelis.’ It is the duty of the state to protect our nationals,” Roque said.

Roque stressed that Cayetano already apologized to the Kuwaiti envoy over the misunderstanding on the rescues. “I trust that Secretary Cayetano will take care of these matters but it’s unnecessary to discuss these things because there are more important matters to attend to at this stage,” Roque added. In the meantime, Senate President Koko Pimentel said the government could send representatives to Kuwait to resolve the worsening diplomatic row between the Philippines and Kuwait, according to globalnation.inquirer.net.

The Philippines could seek the help of Saudi Arabia or Qatar “to act as our intermediaries with the Kuwaitis,” Pimentel said. In the meantime, journal.com.ph quoting Senator Nancy Binay said someone should be held accountable as she plans to file a resolution to call for an investigation into the diplomatic mess with Kuwait.

Binay urged the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) to look into the matter and sanction those who possibly violated protocol by uploading the rescue video. Binay also reiterated her call that there should be a code of conduct for government officials on social media use. Senator Sherwin Gatchalian voicing concern over the diplomatic spat wanted to know the intention in uploading the video. He stressed that the whole situation must be clarified and investigated so as not to happen again.

Source: Agencies

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