A priest is being sent to Kuwait
this week to beef up a three-man Filipino Catholic pastoral mission in the Gulf state. They will have their hands full ministering to fearful migrant workers. Kuwait has expelled Philippine ambassador Renato Villa after a video of a "rescue operation" of distressed workers, apparently approved by Filipino authorities, came out on social media. The release of the video went through official channels. A blogger close to Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte posted it online, triggering more than 400,000 shares and comments, mostly at the expense of Kuwait. Media reports also quoted Villa as saying that he did not need the help of Kuwaiti authorities to pluck abused workers from their workplaces. Villa's expulsion order occurred the day after Manila claimed Duterte's charm had managed to paper over "a minor spat" with the Gulf country.
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Duterte's cheerleaders even crowed on social media that the president's diplomatic prowess would win the fight. Aside from sending Villa home, Kuwait has now vowed to track down and arrest other Filipinos responsible for "smuggling out workers" from households of their employers. The Philippines has been accused of violating an agreement that had already extended an amnesty deadline for overstaying workers and relaxed exit rules for undocumented ones. Because of the "rescue" incident, at least 142 Filipinos scheduled for flights on April 26 back to Manila are stranded, with orders to report to Kuwait's Foreign Ministry. They are among the more than 3,000 undocumented Filipinos still in the host country. Over 800 others, all with complaints against abusive employers, now face an uphill battle for justice, including the release of delayed compensation. There are fears that 250,000 Filipino workers at the bottom of Kuwait's pecking order will bear the brunt of the social backlash. The most vulnerable are the 160,000 domestic workers, mostly women. Kuwait's anger bubbled over after Duterte's spokesman Harry Roque escalated the crisis to head-of-state level with his narrative of a meeting between Duterte and Kuwait's envoy to Manila. "[Duterte] is a man of political will. I think he made it very clear he had no other option but to protect Filipino workers in Kuwait," Roque said. Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano apologized to Kuwait but insisted that the breach in diplomatic protocol was justified by "life or death threats." The claim, however, did not match the video, which showed a well-dressed worker with bags packed, not the usual traumatized maids who come out dazed and battered from abuse. Filipinos are familiar with the latter scenario. There's hardly a week without television reports of workers pleading for rescue or being flown home after an ordeal. There has been no explanation for the video release. It was, at best, unnecessary. At worst, the botched social media stunt has turned the spotlight on the hypocrisy
of the Duterte government's human rights stance. On the day of Villa's expulsion, the Philippines cancelled the missionary visa of Australian nun Patricia Fox
as punishment for her involvement in human rights advocacy. The nun's lawyer noted that the decision, now being appealed, was handed down without giving the missionary the opportunity to air her side. Duterte said he had personally ordered the investigation of Sister Fox, calling the soft-spoken religious "foul-mouthed" for speaking out on labor and agrarian reform issues. The penchant for legal shortcuts is a Duterte trademark, as shown in the death of at least 4,000
suspected drug addicts and dealers who died in "legitimate police operations." In several current court
cases, families and neighbors have testified that victims were shot while begging for mercy. There is even suspicion that many of the more than 10,000 deaths attributed to vigilante killings might have also been the handiwork of the police. The Duterte government, which now waves the human rights flag to justify its actions in Kuwait, routinely threatens human rights workers and has placed several on a terror list. Filipinos understand the plight of overseas workers, an estimated 10 percent of the population. What the nation and the government need to understand is that the rights of those forced into the diaspora are the same as the rights of the thousands of victims of extrajudicial killings, of the hundreds jailed without due process, and the victims of torture in Philippine jails. Inday Espina-Varona is an editor and opinion writer for various publications in Manila.