Competent diplomacy is what PH needs
The Philippines and Kuwait have finally signed a bilateral labor agreement that aims to provide more robust legal safeguards for our citizens as well as improve overseas Filipino workers’ employment conditions in the Gulf state.
The labor agreement protects OFWs’ rights to keep their passports, travel documents and mobile phones, which employers tended to confiscate. This would ensure that OFWs, especially domestics, are not at the full mercy of their employers.
The agreement guarantees their basic needs such as food, clothing and housing, as well as health insurance. It also gives Philippine officials the prerogative to oversee the renewal of employment contracts in order to provide proper oversight and protection to OFWs.
This is a highly welcome development, for which the Duterte administration should be credited. Yet, it shouldn’t distract us from the massive diplomatic faux pas that has plagued PH-Kuwait relations in recent weeks. Both countries are yet to fully restore diplomatic relations, and several members of the Philippine diplomatic staff threatened with arrest are yet to be repatriated. (Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III announced Thursday that Kuwait had withdrawn the arrest warrants for three diplomats, and that the latter were expected back Friday night.—ED.)
It’s not also clear whether the labor agreement would guarantee the timely rescue of distressed OFWs by Kuwaiti authorities, or provide the Philippine diplomatic staff the right to conduct rescue operations as a last resort.
The agreement signed in Kuwait wouldn’t have been finalized if not for Bello, who painstakingly insulated the negotiation process from the broader diplomatic fallout.
The lesson is clear: The Philippines needs, perhaps more than ever, a competent diplomacy that puts service before publicity and politics.
Just work, no drama
Back in 2014, then Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario oversaw the safe repatriation of close to 13,000 OFWs in Libya, which plunged into total chaos in the post-Gadhafi period. The Department of Foreign Affairs also oversaw the safe exit and repatriation of countless stranded OFWs in war-ravaged Arab countries, ranging from Tunisia to Syria, during those difficult years.
We also saw the previous administration, together with civil society groups, successfully pushing for bilateral labor agreements with many Arab states, setting the groundwork for better protection of OFWs’ rights and interest.
All of these was achieved with patience, diligence, smarts and, crucially, minimal publicity. Clearly, it’s best when diplomacy is left to professional diplomats and statesmen, rather than politicians and publicists.
Contrast that with what transpired recently, when, within months, PH-Kuwait relations went from testy to teetering on the verge of collapse.
In February, President Duterte ordered a partial ban on the deployment of OFWs to Kuwait after local authorities discovered the gruesome murder of Filipino domestic Joanna Demafelis at the hands of her Arab employers.
The President was further incensed when he was informed that in 2017 alone, as many as 120 Filipinos died in Kuwait in suspicious circumstances, likely violence inflicted by abusive employers or inhumane working conditions.
In the succeeding months, the two countries steadily moved toward a bilateral labor agreement, which would ensure higher minimum wage and improved working conditions for OFWs as well as tighter safeguards against abuse. Filipinos in the household services, with minimal to no protection under domestic laws, were at the center of the proposed agreement.
Bello was at the center of commendable efforts to ensure that the Philippines would not only strike a hard-line stance against abuses in the Gulf state, but also provide tangible protection for the large OFW community there.
The date of forging the labor agreement loomed, and the President prepared for a state visit to Kuwait to oversee the signing ceremony.
But all of that went right through the window when a senior official in the DFA released a video of a rescue mission, which energized the President’s base but outraged the Kuwaiti nation.
In potential violation of the Vienna Convention, which oversees diplomatic protocols among nations, and, more clearly, Kuwaiti sovereignty, members of the Philippines’ Rapid Response Team (RRT) were shown in the video rescuing distressed OFWs in the Gulf state.
According to Philippine authorities, the rescue decision was made as a last resort, 24 hours after informing local law enforcement agencies failed to elicit any helpful response.
Kuwaiti authorities would have likely turned a blind eye to the rescue mission—having cleared the entry of an augmented RRT earlier, and having constantly coordinated with the Philippine Embassy on rescue missions—had some officials not released the video.
More specifically, it was the posting of the video on Facebook by pro-government propagandists that resulted in the embarrassment, if not humiliation, of Kuwaiti authorities. Politically, there was just no way for the proud Kuwaitis not to adopt a hardline response.
In retaliation, Kuwaiti authorities detained four of the nondiplomatic staff in the Philippine Embassy, issued warrants, possibly in violation of the Vienna Convention, for the arrest of three diplomats, and expelled Ambassador to Kuwait Renato Pedro Villa.
Crucially, there are even broader and potentially troubling circumstances beyond Kuwait, in spite of the signing of the new labor agreement.
Other Gulf kingdoms, particularly Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, and Qatar, which host close to 2 million OFWs, may opt to tighten their supervision of the movements of Philippine Embassy staff in their respective jurisdictions in order to avoid the embarrassment visited upon Kuwait.
Abusive employers in the region may also hunker down and wait for the controversy to blow over.
This entire crisis was likely the result of the amateurish and publicity-driven intentions of some irresponsible officials and propagandists, which put “shock and awe” politics before the long-term welfare of OFWs in the Middle East.
As the legendary French diplomat Charles Maurice de Talleyrand once said, “It’s worse than a crime, it is a blunder.”
Richard Heydarian formerly served as policy advisor on foreign and OFW affairs at the Philippine Congress. He is the author of, among other books, “Asia’s New Battlefield: US, China and the Struggle for Western Pacific” (Zedbooks, London) and “Rise of Duterte: A Populist Revolt Against Elite Democracy” (Palgrave Macmillan, London).
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