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Human rights watchdog urges Kuwait to agree on new worker safeguards with the Philippines

Jessica, center, sister of Filipino worker Joanna Demafelis whose body was found inside a freezer in Kuwait, cries in front of the wooden casket containing her at the international airport in Manila on February 16. (AFP)
DUBAI: Human Rights Watch called on Kuwait to agree to greater protection for migrant workers as a Philippine delegation was due in the emirate Thursday to discuss an outcry over alleged abuses of Filipinos.
But the New York-based watchdog also criticized a ban imposed by the Philippines last week on migrants leaving to work in Kuwait, saying it was likely to increase the number resorting to unregulated channels that exposed them to a greater risk of abuse.
President Rodrigo Duterte imposed the ban in response to the murder of a Filipino maid whose body was found stuffed in a freezer in Kuwait earlier this month.
He triggered a diplomatic row with Kuwait by alleging that Arab employers routinely raped their Filipino workers, forced them to work 21 hours a day and fed them scraps.
“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,” HRW’s Middle East women’s rights researcher Rothna Begum said in a statement late Wednesday.
The kafala or sponsorship system, widely prevalent in the oil-rich Gulf states, ties migrant workers’ visas to their employers, prohibiting workers from leaving or changing jobs without prior consent.
“The Philippines should work with Kuwait to protect workers rather than ban them from migrating, which is more likely to cause harm than to help,” Begum said.
“Both Kuwait and the Philippines have an opportunity to work together to increase protections for domestic workers and fix the gaps that are leaving workers vulnerable to extreme abuse.”
Kuwait has said it is investigating reported deaths and abuses, and insisted there were only a small number considering that there are more than 250,000 Filipinos working in Kuwait.
It has invited Duterte to visit the emirate but he has yet to respond.
The Philippine delegation due in Kuwait later on Thursday is headed by Labor Undersecretary Ciriaco Lagunzad.
It is due to travel on to Saudi Arabia and Qatar, two other Gulf states with large Philippine migrant workforces.
In all, there are more than two million Filipinos working in the region, whose remittances are a lifeline to the Philippine economy.
Lagunzad said Duterte had ordered the delegation to ensure that the passports of Filipino workers are deposited with the Philippine embassy.
Duterte also wants Filipinos to have access to cellphones so they can call for help in case of abuse, Lagunzad said.