By Ben Garcia

KUWAIT: The Philippine Embassy responded to a news article published last week warning it against ‘sheltering’ runaway workers inside the embassy building, reminding the Philippines that sheltering absconding workers is against Kuwaiti law. “This was a mere proposal subject to further studies,” said an embassy official who agreed to be interviewed on the condition of anonymity since the newly-designated ambassador to Kuwait Noordin Pendosina Lomondot is yet to arrive after taking the oath of office at Malacanang Palace before President Rodrigo Duterte over the weekend.

“I don’t think it will be implemented soon. It was a proposal on the part of the Kuwaiti government and not from the Philippine side. I heard about it some time ago, even before the meeting last week. We told them it has to be studied first,” said the embassy official. “Remember that we are only allowed to bring 50 runaway housemaids to the Kuwaiti government shelter. What I know is that Secretary Silvestre Bello III requested to increase the number from 50 to 100.

This was mentioned during meetings with Kuwaiti officials, which they agreed, but our runway housemaid numbers have always been at 300 or higher, so where are we going to take the 200 plus more maids in case they invoke this Kuwaiti law? Maybe if they increase the shelters, perhaps we will ‘study’ the matter, but then again we also have to ensure the safety of our citizens if their lives are being threatened by their employers,” the embassy source told Kuwait Times.

“Our mission’s mandate from our government in Manila is to protect the interests and welfare of our fellow citizens working overseas wherever they are in the world, and this includes Kuwait; this mandate has never been replaced or changed till now,” the source added.

There have been several cases of employers going to the Philippine Embassy to take back domestic workers who have fled and sought sanctuary there. In one instance, a former welfare officer at the embassy was involved in a physical altercation with a Kuwaiti employer who tried to physically remove his housemaid from the embassy and take her back to his home.

“It’s a dangerous precedent if we shut the shelter and allow the government of Kuwait to take custody of our runaway workers. The Kuwaiti government should instead help the Philippine embassy expedite the resolution of runaway housemaid cases so they can easily be reunited with their families. They are human beings too. While we don’t blame the entire problem on employers as they are mostly arising from the housemaids, they are poor and disadvantaged – have mercy on them,” a community leader said.

The Public Authority for Manpower (PAM) opened a shelter for absconding domestic workers in 2014. It is designed to house more than 500 runaway housemaids of various nationalities, but the location is somewhere in the heart of Jleeb Al-Shuyoukh, and it is not easy for runaway helpers to find. Many of them escape with friends who are also Filipino, and they mostly go to the embassy as a safe haven.

The question of the embassy shelter was reportedly mentioned in the minutes of meetings signed during the recent visit of Philippine Secretary of the Department of Labor and Employment during the Joint Committee Meeting, in which they stressed on the need to do away with the so-called ‘shelter center’ inside the embassy headquarters, saying all complaints will be handled to ensure protection of the workers and necessary legal measures will be taken.

In the minutes of meeting, they also included a new provision related to the obligations of the second party (the employer), where the domestic worker is allowed to own a phone and use it outside working hours, allowing Filipinos to keep their passports, giving them one day off a week and enough sleeping hours. At the same meeting, they also agreed to prevent the employer from assigning the domestic worker to work outside Kuwait without her consent.

The Philippines had imposed a total ban of its workers to Kuwait on Jan 15 – which was partially lifted on Feb 5 – after an autopsy by the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) in the Philippines revealed that Jeanelyn Villavende, 26, was allegedly raped and beaten to death. The autopsy also revealed that Villavende had suffered from past physical abuse before her death in December. DOLE had earlier said that Villavende had sought the help of her recruitment agency for repatriation, but help wasn’t forthcoming.

The Kuwaiti authorities have detained Villavende’s employers. The Philippine authorities condemned Villavende’s death, describing it was a “clear violation” of the agreement signed by Kuwait and the Philippines in 2018. The 2018 agreement – which came at the end of a diplomatic crisis over the gruesome murder of Filipino worker Joanna Demafelis – sought to uphold the protection of the rights and welfare of Filipino workers in Kuwait.

A total of 250,000 Filipinos are currently working in various sectors in Kuwait, of which 65 percent are engaged in the domestic labor sector. At least five to 10 Filipinas run away to the embassy shelter daily, as per the Kuwait Times source at the Philippine Embassy.