Hundreds of Filipino domestic staff in Kuwait have fled their employer to the Philippines embassy after President Rodrigo Duterte offered to fly them home, according to reports.
On Monday, the Philippines enacted a total ban on its citizens coming to Kuwait for work, three days after Duterte held up pictures of the body of a maid found dead in a Kuwaiti apartment.
The Philippine premier, who in January highlighted the suicides of four women that were abused in Kuwait, warned of “drastic measures” to prevent further loss of life and called on airlines to fly home “those who want to be repatriated, with or without money”.
Kuwait’s foreign minister criticised the president’s remarks on Tuesday and said the country was in contact with the Philippines to address concerns over workers’ conditions and abuse.
“Escalation does not serve the ties between Kuwait and the Philippines,” Sheikh Sabah al-Khalid al-Sabah said, adding that 170,000 Filipinos “live a decent life in Kuwait … but separate accidents unfortunately happen, and we are providing our Filipino counterparts with the results of the investigations.”
Local reports in Kuwait suggested the number of runaway Filipino housemaids had swelled since Duterte’s promise of free flights home.
Kuwait Times cited an official as stating the Philippine embassy’s shelter in Salam normally receives five-to-10 runaways a day but on Sunday took in 92, Monday 111 and had already received 82 by 2:00pm on Tuesday.
“If the trend persists, we may not be able to accommodate them all here in the shelter,” labour attaché Alex Padaen told the publication. “We have requested Manila for another shelter to house runaway domestic helpers heeding the call of the president.”
He called on workers to remain calm amid confusion regarding how the work ban was being applied.
“Domestic helpers have to understand that the president is not calling them all to return home – only if they are not treated well.”
Officials had stated Filipino workers that were satisfied with their conditions in Kuwait were not obligated to flee their employers. However, on Monday evening ABS CBN reported that 200 workers vacationing in their home country were initially denied permission to return to Kuwait but were later allowed to leave.
One domestic worker who fled her employer in Kuwait – Ofelia Baleroso – told Kuwait Times she left with her colleague.
“When I arrived here last month, she told me our boss is mistreating her. I hadn’t experienced it yet, but decided to run away with her because I did not want to stay there alone,” she was quoted as saying.
More than 250,000 Filipinos work in Kuwait and send home remittances to support their families.
For domestic workers in particular, human rights groups have highlighted reports of abuse including non-payment of wages, long working hours and physical and sexual assault.
The Philippine foreign affairs department said on Monday 10,000 workers who had been staying in Kuwait illegally would leave the country under an amnesty period in effect until February 22.
Kuwaiti lawmakers have had mixed reactions to the diplomatic spat. MP Al-Humaidi Al Subaei reportedly criticised Duterte’s statements on Tuesday and accused him of blackmailing Kuwait but also questioned a lack of response from the government.
Others called for the government to open up manpower recruitment to other countries and accused the Philippines of tarnishing Kuwait’s image.
Controversial MP Safa Al-Hashem blamed the spat on the country’s foreign population on Monday, after it emerged the most recent renters of the apartment in which the body of Joanna Daniela Demaflis was found were a Lebanese man and his wife.
The body of the 29-year-old had reportedly remained in the freezer for more than a year after the couple left Kuwait in November 2016.
Al-Hashem called for expats to be banned from hiring domestic workers.
“I will propose a desire to prevent expatriates from recruiting for domestic workers! The tragedies are only from their bad dealings with the servants,” she said in comments translated from Arabic, adding that the freezer discovery was the “biggest example”.
The National Assembly’s foreign relations committee was asked to investigate the Philippines decision and submit its report by March 6.
Separately, the Manpower Public Authority denied it had ignored 1,000 complaints from Filipino employees working for a major company. A spokesperson said the authority only received 150 complaints from 500 workers at the firm.