MANILA — A Philippine labour group and a senator accused President Rodrigo Duterte on Monday of gambling with the livelihoods of tens of thousands of Filipinos in Kuwait, after he asked them to come home amid a diplomatic dispute over reported labour abuse.
The Philippines and the Gulf Arab state are embroiled in a row over what Duterte says is a pattern of mistreatment of domestic workers by Kuwaiti employers.
The Philippine ambassador has been asked to leave following attempts by embassy workers to “rescue” distressed workers there, which Kuwait says is a breach of its sovereignty.
Duterte at the weekend appealed to the “sense of patriotism” of overseas Filipino workers, known as OFW, and asked them to return home, where he said they would get financial aid and job opportunities in other countries.
Critics said Duterte had no way of guaranteeing that and should not ask those whose income was vital to their families back home to quit their jobs.
Senator Risa Hontiveros called Duterte’s request “extremely reckless, shortsighted and uncaring”.
“President Duterte should stop gambling with the lives and employment of thousands of OFWs, and the welfare of their families, in a desperate attempt to break the diplomatic impasse,” she said in a statement.
The Philippines imposed a ban in February on facilitating Filipino employment in Kuwait and helped several thousand workers return home after reports of suspicious deaths of domestic helpers.
The flashpoint was the discovery of a Filipino maid’s body in a freezer in an abandoned home, and signs she was tortured.
Duterte said on Saturday the ban was permanent, although his spokesman, Harry Roque, suggested on Monday that a labour protection agreement between the two countries may still happen.
Roque also clarified that Duterte “is not compelling anyone to come home”.
Domestic helpers account for more than 65 percent of the more than 260,000 Filipinos in Kuwait, according to Philippine government data.
The earnings overseas workers send home is vital to sustaining low-income families and a crucial economic driver.
As many as 60,000 workers might return from Kuwait, said Jacinto Paras, undersecretary at the Labour Ministry.
“Those who have been running away, complaining of abuses and maltreatment, they can be free to return,” he told the ANC news channel on Monday.
Migrante International, an alliance of Filipino migrant organisations, doubted the government could provide for those who return.
“We cannot expect our OFWs to come home if the root cause of their migration – poverty due to landlessness and lack of decent jobs – still exists and is actually worsening,” it said. — Editing by Martin Petty and Darren Schuettler