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Duterte Threatens to Ban Labor Migration to the Middle East

Philippines Should Demand Stronger Protections for Overseas Filipino Workers

Workers continue to spend long periods waiting at embassy shelters, including the Philippines safe house, shown here. Since 1992, the Kuwaiti government has relied on deportation as the primary method for dealing with domestic workers who face employment-related problems. Workers reported spending weeks or months in official custody, moving from embassy shelters to police stations, and from there to criminal investigation facilities, before they were sent to deportation detention. © 2010 Moises Saman/Magnum Photos

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte threatened to cut off the flow of Filipino workers to the Middle East in response to incidents of rape and suicides of Filipinos in the region.

“I’m sorry, all the Filipinos there, they can all go home,” Duterte told reporters on Wednesday.

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.

A week ago, the Philippines banned workers from migrating 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 report 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 migrate, 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 protections for their domestic workers in the Middle East, but these work best for migrants arriving through a regulated channel. Philippine embassies verify contracts to check employers commit to paying a monthly minimum wage of US$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 protections. 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 protections and improved cooperation from Middle East governments to work with the Philippines embassy to help rescue workers in distress and conduct investigations into worker 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 answer it?

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