By Ben Garcia and Agencies

KUWAIT: The total ban the Philippines imposed on laborers seeking to work in Kuwait has been expanded to include even vacationing Filipino semi-skilled workers, who can no longer return to their employers. Hundreds of vacationers who were heading back to Kuwait after they had just concluded their Christmas break are being held back in Manila by immigration officers. “I have the papers and certificate of employment in Kuwait. I have been with the company for 12 years. I have a good salary and I do not have any problem with my employer.

They are treating us pretty well. Why am I now being included in the ban,” asked Roland Gaspar David, who was supposed to be back to work as a line cook at a chain restaurant in Kuwait. David was supposed to fly back via Qatar Airways from Clark International Airport in Pampanga, north of Manila on Friday when he was offloaded from the flight. “I was advised by my boss to go to the main office of the POEA in Manila and ask for exemption. I hope they will listen to me. My boss is also Filipino,” he said.

David took his annual leave from his work as chef to take advantage of the Christmas break. “If I was able to fly back to Kuwait, I am expected to return to work by January 19. But now, I am here and helpless,” he told Kuwait Times via phone. David said he was with three more workers who were all heading to Kuwait from Clark International Airport but were all stopped by immigration officers last Friday. One was a hotel worker; another was a sales lady and the third a salon worker, he said.

Last Friday, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte gave the green light to the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) to impose a total deployment ban of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) to Kuwait. DOLE imposed total ban for the deployment of newly-hired workers to Kuwait, including domestic helpers and skilled and unskilled laborers. The decision was based on the results of an autopsy conducted on the remains of Filipina maid Jeanelyn Villavende indicating she was not just heavily tortured, but also sexually abused, which is contrary to the brief autopsy report of the Kuwaiti health ministry, a POEA decision said.

Vulnerable workers
Speaking to Kuwait Times, Estrelita Hizon explained why the balik mangagawa (returning OFWs) semi-skilled workers were included. “They are also classified as vulnerable workers, so we decided to include them as well in the ban. If their job category is included in the list, I suggest the only way is to make a request and if the administrator of the POEA will grant them permit, they can leave for work again in Kuwait; but again, no new hires will be permitted to leave from all work categories, including semi-skilled and skilled professionals,” Hizon explained.

Asked for the grounds for them to be permitted to go back to their sponsors after spending vacation, he said: “If they were able to present to the Administrator (of the POEA) their case pretty well, maybe they will be permitted to leave for work again in Kuwait,” he said. In a statement, Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo said Filipinos are now officially barred from seeking jobs in the Gulf state, following the killing of Filipino domestic worker Jeanelyn Padernal Villavende.

“The Palace wishes to inform the public that President Rodrigo Roa Duterte has approved the recommendation of Labor and Employment Secretary Silvestre Bello III on the total deployment ban of Filipino workers in Kuwait. The ban includes skilled workers,” Panelo said. Panelo also issued the statement after the DOLE sought the total ban on the deployment of OFWs to Kuwait in the wake of Villavende’s murder and the Arab state’s supposed attempt to cover up the case.

The announcement came after Duterte recently announced that he was not keen on ordering the repatriation of Filipino workers from Kuwait. Results of the National Bureau of Investigation’s examination of Villavende’s remains showed signs of sexual abuse on the victim. There were also “old healed wounds” which indicate that Villavende had been battered weeks prior to her killing. Panelo said it seemed that the Kuwaiti government is trying to conceal the truth.

“The result of the re-autopsy conducted by the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) indicates that overseas Filipino worker Jeanelyn Villavende was sexually abused and sodomized,” he said. “The Kuwaiti government was attempting to hide the said circumstance when it gave us a general autopsy report that the cause of death was trauma and bruises all over her body,” he added.

Panelo said the total deployment ban would not be lifted unless Kuwait honors the 2018 labor deal with the Philippines. He was referring to the memorandum of agreement on the protection of OFWs in the Arab country signed by the two countries on May 11, 2018.

“PRRD (President Rodrigo Roa Duterte) is for a total ban until the memorandum of agreement between the two countries is fully implemented and the terms contained therein are incorporated in every labor contract with our OFWs,” he said. The labor pact between the Philippines and Kuwait was seen as a solution to end the persistent human rights violations committed by Kuwaiti employers against their Filipino workers.

Kuwait dismayed
Kuwaiti Assistant Foreign Minister for Consular Affairs Ambassador Samie Al-Hamad had on Thursday voiced Kuwait’s dismay at a Philippine government decision to impose a total ban on the deployment of workers to Kuwait. The Philippine move came in spite of the legal action taken by concerned Kuwaiti authorities in the aftermath of the killing of a Filipino in Kuwait, Hamad said in a press statement.

“As we express our extreme sorrow at this appalling crime, which is uncommon in the Kuwaiti society and even against our Islamic values, the legal action taken against the culprits – including arresting them and filing a case with the Public Prosecution – reflects Kuwait’s keenness on applying the law and ensuring justice to guarantee the safety and protection of all those living on its soil, and that’s why it is a favorable destination for people of different nationalities, including Filipinos who are nearly a quarter million workers in number,” he said.

Hamad wondered why Philippine officials handle this case through mass media, rather than official methods, consultations and meetings, which Kuwait has always called for, and has even helped both sides overcome many obstacles and led to the signing of an agreement on domestic workers in 2018.

The Kuwaiti official considered that such meetings are the optimum way to address the problems of workers, revamp agreements and assess measures taken, thus averting any decisions or stances that could undermine bilateral relations. He concluded by offering heartfelt condolences and sincere solace to the family of the victim, restating that meetings between both countries’ officials are essential to resolving these problems.