Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte welcomes Filipino workers who arrived from Kuwait on Feb. 12 following the president's order to completely ban the deployment of workers in the oil-rich country. (Photo courtesy of Presidential Communications Office)
As many as 250,000 Filipinos will be affected by a total ban on the deployment of workers to Kuwait, according to a Philippine government estimate.
President Rodrigo Duterte ordered the total ban following the discovery of the body of a female Filipino worker inside a freezer at an abandoned apartment unit.
The president has earlier suspended the sending of workers to Kuwait after reports came out that several Filipinos were driven to commit suicide due to abuse by employers.
On Feb. 13, Duterte said he would be willing to sell his soul "to the devil" to give migrant workers a comfortable life back home.
"I will sell my soul to the devil to look for money so that you can come home and live comfortably here," Duterte said in a speech at the presidential palace.
Every year, at least a million Filipinos leave to work abroad, or about 4,500 Filipinos every day, according to data from the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration.
It estimates 12.5 million Filipinos currently work or reside abroad, sending home in 2017 about US$32.8 billion, a 4.5 percent increase from 2016.
The Philippines is the third biggest remittance-receiving country in the world, after India ($65.4 billion) and China ($62.9 billion), according to the World Bank.
The Kuwait ban won the support of the Episcopal Commission on Migrants and Itinerant People of the Philippine Catholic bishops.
Commission head Bishop Ruperto Santos of Balanga, said it sends a strong message that "enough is enough."
"A life of a [migrant worker] is precious. We should protect life, [workers'] rights should be respected, their dignity promoted," said the prelate.
He said those found guilty of abusing workers should be prosecuted while government agencies involved in sending workers abroad should be investigated and punished.
He said that while church leaders appreciate government efforts in helping workers, jobs should also be made available for those returning.
"Let us create more jobs so that they will never be forced to work abroad [and] be separated from their families," said Bishop Santos.
A top Kuwaiti official, meanwhile, warned that the Philippine decision to bring home workers could damage ties between the two countries.
"We are surprised and we condemn statements from the Philippine president, especially as we are in contact with the Philippines at a high level to explain the workers' conditions in Kuwait," said Kuwait's foreign minister Sheikh Sabah al-Khalid al-Sabah.
He said Duterte's decision "does not serve the ties between Kuwait and the Philippines," adding that Filipinos "live a decent life in Kuwait."
The Foreign Affairs office in Manila said as many as 10,000 overstaying Filipinos, under an amnesty program, can join in the repatriation program.
On Feb. 12, at least 2,229 Filipino workers in Kuwait had been issued travel documents, and 1,754 were cleared by immigration authorities.
The ban came after Filipino domestic worker Joanna Daniella Demafelis, 29, was found dead in a freezer in an apartment in Kuwait.
Her remains had reportedly been stored there for a year. Authorities said marks on her body indicate she was strangled.