Spokesman: Duterte orders lifting of labor ban to Kuwait

MANILA, Philippines — Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte on Wednesday ordered the lifting of a ban on the deployment of Filipino workers to Kuwait after talks eased a dispute over the plight of Filipina housemaids in the oil-rich Arab nation, his spokesman said.

Presidential spokesman Harry Roque said in a statement that Duterte ordered Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III to lift the ban after the action was recommended by the Philippine special envoy to Kuwait. Kuwait expelled the Filipino ambassador and recalled its envoy to Manila at the height of the diplomatic crisis last month.

It was not immediately clear when the ban would actually be lifted. Many Kuwait-bound Filipino workers affected by the ban have called for the lifting, saying their workplaces offer adequate protection from abuse, unlike vulnerable housemaids.

Duterte banned the deployment of Filipino workers to Kuwait after the body of a Filipina housemaid was discovered in a freezer in a Kuwaiti home in February in what he said was the latest in a growing number of deaths and abuse of impoverished Filipina maids in the wealthy nation.

The gruesome death of Filipina housemaid Joanna Demafelis focused attention on the plight of many Filipinos driven by poverty, unemployment and lack of opportunities at home to seek menial work abroad.

The Philippines is a major labor exporter, especially to the Middle East. About a tenth of the population works abroad, and the earnings they send home have bolstered the Philippine economy for decades.

Aside from the labor deployment ban, which Duterte recently threatened to impose permanently, he also ordered the repatriation of thousands of Filipino workers facing problems in Kuwait.

Kuwait, however, protested after Philippine authorities carried out rescue missions for troubled housemaids they said were seeking help and a video of the rescues was posted online. Philippine Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano apologized to Kuwait but maintained that the Philippines did not commit any infraction while carrying out its duty to help distressed Filipino workers.

Kuwait's Foreign Ministry accused the Philippine Embassy of a "flagrant and grave breach of rules and regulations that govern diplomatic action where staff helped Filipina house helpers run away," and ordered the Philippine ambassador to leave within a week.

Negotiations led to the signing last week of a new agreement that offered better protection for Filipino workers in Kuwait and started to ease the dispute. A Philippine government statement said, without elaborating, that the agreement offered "additional guarantees that we asked our Kuwaiti friends to extend."

Duterte has said he wanted the agreement to guarantee that Filipina maids would have access to their passports and cellphones, not be fed leftover food and be allowed to have a break weekly. He has threatened to ban the deployment of Filipino workers to at least two other nations because of reports of abuses and maltreatment of Filipino workers.

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