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PH-Kuwait deal: astonishingly basic

Perhaps one positive outcome of the recent diplomatic fiasco between the Philippines and Kuwait is the signing on May 11 of a labor agreement that seeks to guarantee the rights and welfare of Filipino domestic workers in that Gulf state.

While the agreement is laudable in principle, some of its protective safeguards are astonishingly basic by general employment standards practiced in other countries. For example, the agreement directs employers to strictly abide by the agreed wage in the labor contract and to provide food, housing, clothing and health insurance to their employees. It also states that Filipino domestic workers be allowed to use their mobile phones and prohibits employers from confiscating these. Apparently, these provisions are not enjoyed by most household helpers; a labor deal had to be signed in order to implement what should be the basic entitlements of employees in general.

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Moreover, the agreement bars employers from confiscating their employees’ passports. Such a practice is illegal in the first place, because passports are technically the property of the issuing country — in this case, the Philippines. It makes one wonder how these fundamental rights have been disregarded all this time.

International human rights and labor groups cite the restrictive kafala (sponsorship) system as the reason behind these persistent violations. Kafala is practiced not only in Kuwait, but also in other Gulf Cooperation Council states, such as Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. Under this sponsorship system, migrant workers normally cannot enter a country, switch jobs, or leave a country without their employer’s explicit permission. This allows for the unequal power dynamics between sponsors and workers, and also creates opportunities for the exploitation of foreign workers.

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Employers commonly confiscate their foreign employees’ passports to keep the latter in check. But the employees are dissuaded from filing complaints, even those concerning contract violations or physical abuse, because doing so would consequently put them in conflict with their employers. And as their sponsors under kafala, employers have the power to cancel their residence or work visa and have them deported. This system also renders foreign workers, particularly Filipino domestic workers in Kuwait, defenseless and vulnerable. The sad reality is that most of them would rather endure violations of their labor contract or various forms of abuse from their employers than go home penniless to a hungry family in the Philippines.

It is expected that the signing of the labor agreement will at least lessen the violation of the rights of Filipino domestic workers in Kuwait that are usually tolerated under kafala. There are actually notable provisions in the agreement, such as the activation of a 24/7 hotline for distressed workers, and the creation of a special police unit that would assist the Philippine Embassy in rescue operations. Apparently, the latter is aimed at preventing another “rescue operation” by Philippine officials as shown in the controversial video, which was deemed illegal by Kuwait and caused its fury.

But the major challenge for the two countries is the strict implementation of the agreement, which has to depend on the Kuwaiti government’s enforcement commitment. Despite the protective measures put in place, the agreement lacks specific penalties and sanctions against offending employers and does not set enforcement mechanisms such as labor inspections. Since the workplace is inside the home, labor rules on work hours, rest periods, minimum salary, and health and safety conditions are almost impossible to monitor. And employers’ families may condemn enforcement efforts as intrusions into their private lives and spaces.

Yet despite these limitations, the labor deal is expected to instill awareness among and inspire Filipino domestic workers in Kuwait to push for their rights. Hopefully, it would deter Kuwaiti employers from blatant violations of its provisions, though this is extremely hard to guarantee. In reality, Filipino domestic workers need more protection than most workers, but this is much more difficult to ensure and enforce. In the end, they will have to contend with a restrictive employment system that will make it challenging for them to secure safe working conditions where their basic rights are respected.

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Andrea Chloe Wong previously worked as a foreign affairs researcher and college lecturer in the Philippines. She is taking her Ph.D. studies in New Zealand.

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TAGS: Andrea Chloe Wong, Inquirer Commentary, Kuwait-Philippines relations, OFWs in Kuwait
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