The Philippines has made a ban on the deployment of its workers to Kuwait permanent, President Rodrigo Duterte said on Sunday after a diplomatic row erupted over operations to rescue domestic staff.
The country expressed its “great displeasure” following the expulsion of its ambassador to Kuwait on Wednesday and the arrest of four Filipinos hired by the embassy.
This followed accusations from Kuwait’s government that Philippine embassy staff had breached the country’s sovereignty by conducting operations to rescue workers without its permission.
“The ban stays permanently. There will be no more recruitment for — especially domestic helpers. Wala na [no more],” the president told reporters in Davao City after arriving from Singapore on Sunday, according to reports.
He said the Philippines would ask countries including China to accommodate Filipinos affected by the ban and offered to tap into a PHP19.8bn ($384m) national disaster fund to fly workers home.
“The money is there. If it has not been remitted to the National Treasury, I can always use emergency fund. To me, it’s a calamity… If my countrymen are suffering, I would use it. If you want, I would steal money from the central bank. But they [workers] have to come home,”
The Philippines expressed its surprise at the expulsion of Renato Villa last week after apparently receiving assurances his position was secure by Kuwait’s ambassador.
It also said new protections for workers in the country had been discussed including a government hotline and a new mechanism to deal with emergency cases.
The current work ban was enforced in February after a series of abuse cases including the grim discovery of the body of 29-year-old domestic worker Joanna Demafelis in an apartment freezer in Kuwait’s Al Shaab district.
A Kuwait court sentenced in absentia her employers, a Lebanese man and his Syrian wife who had fled Kuwait more than a year before the discovery, earlier this month.
In a press conference highlighting the case and other instances of abuse in the days before the ban, Duterte instructed airlines to fly workers home for free although many of those that left were working in Kuwait illegally and took advantage of an amnesty period.
Tensions between Kuwait and the Philippines appeared to ease in recent weeks after the two sides agreed to sit down for talks towards signing a new labour deal offering greater protections to the more than 250,000 Filipino workers in the Gulf country.
This was expected to be signed by Duterte in a state visit to Kuwait before the holy month of Ramadan but now appears increasingly unlikely, with Kuwaiti officials stating last week the ‘kidnap’ operations conducted by the embassy had jeopardised the deal.
In his comments on Sunday, Duterte took responsibility for the dispute and said there was “no bitterness” while also recognising the “thousands maybe of Filipinos, whose lives were lifted from poverty because of the work that you [Kuwait] have.”
But he also appeared to criticise Kuwait’s response to the spat.
“If my countrymen are a burden to you or if you do not like the way they are acting now, maybe it’s the culture and your response also,” he said.
“We adjust to one another but I will withdraw all the Filipinos there. We will not ask any help from you. We will spend for their return.”
The Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs said in a contrasting statement on Saturday that it was in talks with Kuwait to address recent concerns arising from its efforts to help workers in Kuwait.
“In pursuing these discussions, we remain guided by the President’s policy that the protection of the rights and welfare of Filipinos overseas is paramount,” it said.
“We remain convinced that the actions we took in Kuwait are a rightful exercise of our duty under international law to protect our nationals abroad. Our actions are consistent both with the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations and the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations.”
The department went on to express its commitment to the labour deal the two countries had been working on.