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Philippine officials to visit Kuwait amid worker row

MANILA, Philippines – Philippine officials are headed to Kuwait on Thursday, February 22, to seek greater protection for migrant workers after a diplomatic row over the alleged mistreatment of Filipinos in the Gulf state.

Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III told reporters on Wednesday, February 21, one of his deputies would lead the delegation, which is also due to stop in Saudi Arabia and Qatar to urge reforms.

Topping the list are demands that Filipino workers be allowed to keep their cellphones and passports, which can be confiscated by employers.

The trip comes after Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte last week announced a departure ban for Filipinos planning to work in Kuwait.

He was responding to the murder of a Filipina maid whose body was found stuffed in a freezer in Kuwait this month.

Duterte's ban sparked a diplomatic flap between the Philippines and the Gulf state as he alleged that Arab employers routinely raped their Filipina workers, forced them to work 21 hours a day, and fed them scraps.

Kuwait has invited Duterte for a visit but he has yet to respond. (READ: DOLE: Kuwaiti government ready to negotiate OFW protection terms)

Authorities say some 252,000 Filipinos work in Kuwait, many as maids. They are among over two million employed in the region, whose remittances are a lifeline to the Philippine economy.

"We are going to Kuwait tomorrow, Saudi Arabia, and then on to Qatar to ensure that our overseas Filipino workers have sufficient protection," said Labor Undersecretary Ciriaco Lagunzad III, who will helm the delegation.

"We are afraid that because of the decision of the President to have a deployment ban, our overseas Filipino workers in Kuwait might be affected," he added.

Lagunzad said Duterte had ordered the team to ensure that the passports of Filipino workers are deposited with the Philippine embassy.

Duterte also wanted Filipinos to have access to cellphones so they can call for help in case of abuse, Lagunzad said. (READ: DBM: Enough funds for OFW repatriation from Kuwait)

About 10 million Filipinos work abroad and their treatment abroad is often a political issue at home.

Another team of labor officials said on Wednesday they would conduct negotiations with Kuwait next week on a deal to protect Filipino workers.

"Hopefully we can finalize the memorandum of agreement and by first or second week of March, we will have the signing by the Kuwaiti and Philippine governments," said Labor Undersecretary Claro Arellano. – Rappler.com