Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte on Sunday made permanent a temporary ban on his country's citizens traveling to Kuwait to work, following a series of abuse and murder cases involving Filipino victims.
The ban is being imposed despite the Philippines' reliance on remittance money from its Kuwait-based workers — 262,000 Filipinos are employed in the oil-rich Gulf sheikhdom, 60 percent as domestic staff.
Although the ban may prove financially painful to the impoverished nation of 103 million, Duterte sounded resolute in his decision.
"I would like to address to their patriotism: come home," the president said to his countrymen abroad. "No matter how poor we are, we will survive. The economy is doing good, and we are short of our workers."
The Kuwait ban was first imposed in February, triggered by the discovery of a murdered Filipina maid whose body had been left in a freezer for a month by her Lebanese employer.
Numerous cases of sexual abuse and suicide, as well as unexplained disappearances of domestic workers, have been coming out of Kuwait and other Gulf states for several years, with Filipina women particularly at risk.
Since 2016, 196 Filipino workers have died in Kuwait, and nearly 80 percent of those deaths were due to physical abuse, according to the Philippines' Overseas Workers Welfare Administration. In 2017, the Philippine embassy in Kuwait registered 6,000 cases of abuse, sexual harassment and rape.
Responding to the ban, Kuwaiti Deputy Foreign Minister Khalid Sulaiman Al-Jarallah expressed "the keenness of the State of Kuwait to protect the rights of all residents, including the Filipino community, within the framework of the labor laws in force in the State of Kuwait," according to a government statement translated from Arabic.
The minister also expressed his country's "willingness to cooperate with friends in the Philippines to look at ways to resolve all outstanding issues related to Filipino employment."
The two countries had been in negotiations to lift the ban, but this ended after Kuwaiti authorities arrested two Philippines embassy staff for allegedly helping maids flee their abusive employers.
Kuwait then expelled the Philippine ambassador last Wednesday after he publicly criticized the abuses, and recalled its own envoy in Manila.
"There will be no more recruitment for especially domestic helpers. No more," Duterte told local media Sunday. He added that if workers wanted to stay it was their choice, but said, "All I ask is that the employers treat the Filipinos with the humanity they deserve."
But the ban may actually backfire, said Human Rights Watch, which warned it could "increase abuses of workers who are forced to resort to unsafe and unregulated channels to enter the country" and thus become more vulnerable to trafficking and other dangers.
The rights group recommended the two countries instead work together to pursue reforms, adding that, "Kuwait should confront the outcry over deaths, beatings, and rapes of domestic workers by taking immediate steps to reform the kafala system, which traps workers with abusive employers." The kafala system ties workers' visas to their employers, preventing them from leaving without their employers' consent.
Filipinos are one of the world's largest diaspora populations, with more than 10 million — that's one in ten — seeking work abroad. At home, one in five Filipinos live below the poverty line, according to the Asian Development Bank. Growth is looking up, however; the World Bank projected a maintenance of 6.7 percent growth until 2020, boosted by increased infrastructure spending and remittances.
Remittances from the Filipino global diaspora totaled $26.9 billion in 2016 — equivalent to half the country's total export revenue for the year. Roughly a third of that comes from the Middle East, particularly Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Kuwait is the eighth-largest source of remittance revenues.
Migrant workers comprise two-thirds of Kuwait's population of 4 million, which has the highest migrant worker-to-citizen ratio in the Middle East. Kuwaitis rely heavily on domestic staff.
Duterte said in January, in one of his many public condemnations of the issue, "I do not want a quarrel with Kuwait. I respect their leaders but they have to do something about this because many Filipinas will commit suicide."