On April 25, Kuwait’s Foreign Ministry declared Philippine Ambassador Renato O. Villa persona non grata and recalled Kuwait’s envoy to Manila. The announcement was made after the release of several videos depicting Philippine embassy staff rescuing migrant domestic workers in the country. The incident marks escalating tensions between the two countries over the treatment of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) in Kuwait. On February 12, Filipino Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III issued a ban on deploying Filipino workers to Kuwait following national outrage over the deaths of several Filipino household workers, including the recently solved murder of Joanna Demafelis. The move was condemned by a Kuwaiti official, who said it could damage ties between the two countries.
Both countries are economically dependent on OFWs. As of 2016, remittances constituted 10% of the Philippines’ GDP, making OFWs an important source of income for people inside the country. As Kuwait’s economy continues to boom, expatriate communities, like those from the Philippines, are critical to supporting this growth, with two-thirds of the Kuwaiti population holding foreign citizenship.
Despite these mutual benefits, abuse of migrant workers in Kuwait, as with the wider Gulf region, is extensive. The kafala, or sponsorship, system is at the heart of this abusive dynamic. Kafala is an employment framework requiring that foreign migrants receive sponsorship from a national, in order to work and reside in the country. Found across Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, kafala has been criticized by various human rights groups, which have likened it to slavery. While the system was created to balance rights and obligations between employers and employees, sponsors have exploited the immense advantage created by the framework. For instance, kafala restricts the mobility of workers, and requires an employee obtain approval from their sponsor in order to change jobs. As a result of this requirement, sponsors are often able to extract forced labor from, financially exploit, and otherwise deprive foreign workers of their rights. Under Kuwait’s kafala system, OFWs who flee their employers can be arrested, fined, and/or deported from the country. As reported by Human Rights Watch, other abuses include confiscating workers’ passports, confining them to employers’ homes, and verbal, sexual, and physical assault.
Notwithstanding its kafala system, Kuwait has some of the more progressive migrant protection laws, compared to other GCC countries. In 2015, for example, Kuwait’s National Assembly passed its first law establishing labor rights for domestic workers, though it remains problematic, especially when it comes to enforcement. Kuwait is also expected to sign a bilateral memorandum with the Philippines to grant greater protection to Filipino OFWs. If real progress is to occur on this issue, however, Kuwait must do more and entirely abolish its kafala system, which is incompatible with modern labor practices and violates workers’ human rights.
With an estimated 10 million Filipinos living overseas, the country serves as one of the largest labor exporters in the world. As reported by the Philippine Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA), there are 250,000 documented Filipino workers in Kuwait alone, with 163,000 serving as household service workers, as of 2018. If Kuwait wants to remain an attractive destination for these workers, eliminating the kafala system and adhering to International Labor organization codes and human rights standards is necessary.