More harm than good
President Duterte threatened to cut off the flow of Filipino workers to Kuwait and other Middle East countries in response to incidents of rape and suicides of Filipinos in the region.
Such a ban would likely do more harm than good, forcing workers to take greater risks to seek overseas employment while cutting off a critical source of income for families in the Philippines.
The Philippines recently banned workers from going to Kuwait pending an investigation into the deaths of seven Filipino domestic workers.
I have spoken to hundreds of migrant domestic workers in the Middle East, and while many are paid in full and have decent working conditions, others face a far bleaker reality. They reported employers confiscating their passports, forcing them to work up to 21 hours a day without rest or a day off, restricting food or phone calls, and confining them to the house. Others reported beatings and sexual assault.
The experience of other countries like Indonesia, that have instituted bans on their nationals similar to that threatened by President Duterte, is that such bans do not end these abuses.
Instead people desperate to work still leave, but through unsafe and unregulated channels, leaving them more exposed to abuse and trafficking and making it more difficult to address abuses once they are working in the Middle East.
The Philippines has been a leader in instituting protection for their domestic workers in the Middle East, but this works best for migrants arriving through a regulated channel. Philippine embassies verify contracts to check employers who commit to paying a monthly minimum wage of $400 and have mechanisms that can force agencies to pay for return flight tickets home for abused workers.
Instead of a ban, the Philippines should demand stronger protection. They should advocate for an end to the abusive kafala (visa sponsorship) system which ties migrant workers to their employers and prohibits them from leaving or changing jobs without their employer’s permission.
They should also call for better enforcement of labor protection and improved cooperation from Middle East governments to work with the Philippine Embassy to help rescue workers in distress and conduct investigations into workers’ deaths.
Families in the Middle East depend on Filipino workers. President Duterte asked: “Can I ask you now to treat my countrymen as human beings with dignity?” It’s a fair appeal, but will countries in the Middle East
ROTHNA BEGUM, Researcher, Women’s Rights Division, Human Rights Watch
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