Kafala: The Fight We Must Win

I was at my lowest when I arrived from Kuwait that early Monday morning in April. A few days earlier, videos of our rescue of distraught Filipina household service workers in Kuwait went viral and triggered a diplomatic maelstrom.

Since it was I who released two of the videos to the media, it was I who got most of the blame for what was seen as a colossal fiasco. I was tried in public along with Foreign Affairs Undersecretary Affairs Sarah Lou Y. Arriola and Executive Director Raul Dado of the Office of Migrant Workers Affairs. We were found guilty and crucified without even being given the chance to present our side.

That morning, Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter S. Cayetano was there at the airport to welcome the amnesty grantees we had just escorted home. There was a brief program after which we prepared to head to the Department. The Secretary asked me to ride with him. I took the seat beside him and as soon as I did Secretary Cayetano said a prayer of thanks for our safe return. He then asked me how the flight was. I told him it could have been better had it not been for the controversy. He then asked me what my reason was for doing what I did.

“It was about hope,” I told the Secretary.

I simply wanted to send a message of hope to over a hundred Filipino domestic helpers in Kuwait whose urgent pleas for deliverance the Embassy could not immediately respond to.

I simply wanted to send a message of hope to over a hundred Filipino domestic helpers in Kuwait whose urgent pleas for deliverance the Embassy could not immediately respond to. I told him I was informed that most of them have already been waiting for weeks but the Embassy did not have enough people to send to the police stations to help get them.

I told the Secretary the decision to release the videos was prompted by the suicides four months earlier of three distressed Filipinas there in Kuwait that he himself had reported to the President. I told him I did not want those begging for rescue to lose hope and to simply choose to take their own lives just to end their misery.

I told the Secretary I only wanted to assure those distressed Filipinas and their families in the Philippines that their government will find every single one of them, bring them home, and reunite them with the loved ones who they left behind.

There were other factors that made me decide to issue the videos. I have seen horrific photos of the abuse some our kababayan have been subjected to by their employers. I have seen the unrecognizable remains of Joana Demefelis when I came to the morgue with Ambassador Rene Villa who was making arrangements for her final journey home. I have seen how 1,500 runaway workers were packed like sardines in a shelter that could only accomodate 300 people.

For the more than a hundred others who were desperately begging us for help, sending them and their families a little hope by means of those videos of our teams on the ground coming to fetch them was the fastest way we could respond to their pleas.

For the more than a hundred others who were desperately begging us for help, sending them and their families a little hope by means of those videos of our teams on the ground coming to fetch them was the fastest way we could respond to their pleas.

The videos were not released to offend Kuwait. That was never the intention. The videos were intended as visual support to a bulletin we issued about the deployment of augmentation teams from Manila that would conduct the rescues with the assistance of Kuwaiti authorities as was the standard protocol.

Those videos were also not released to the media to boost the image of Secretary Cayetano as his critics kept peddling. The Secretary was actually not aware there were videos and that I was in possession of at least two of them. I did not ask his permission to share the videos with the media. I felt there was no need to.

Those calling for our heads accused us of violating Kuwaiti sovereignty for supposedly mounting covert commando-type operations that involved forcible entries into homes. There never was anything like that. The handful of rescues our diplomats undertook without the participation of Kuwaiti authorities–about two or three–simply involved picking up abused household service workers outside the residences of their employers.

The release of the videos, unfortunately, unintentionally triggered a diplomatic backlash that imperiled our relations with Kuwait. And I was being blamed for it. Some politicians were also calling for an investigation. On the flight back to Manila, I was already contemplating of resigning. The decision to release the videos was mine alone and I am to blame. I told the Secretary I was taking full responsibility for what happened and offered him my head.

It was the turn of the Secretary, who by then was also receiving a lot of criticism, to give me the hope that I needed. He told me to be strong and to hold on. In the 10 months that I have known Secretary Cayetano, I found him to be someone who always sees the glass half full and not half empty.

“Let history judge you,” he told me.

As the controversy continued to inflict more damage on us, on him, and on the Department, fanned largely by those who wanted to exploit the issue for their own reasons, Secretary Cayetano summoned all his Undersecretaries and Assistant Secretaries one morning and discussed his plans on how to manage the crisis.

The Secretary told us we could no longer afford to go back to the status quo. For the sake of our distressed workers there, we should try to go for a win-win formula. He ended by telling us: “This is a fight we want. This is a fight we will win.”

The Secretary told us we could no longer afford to go back to the status quo. For the sake of our distressed workers there, we should try to go for a win-win formula. He ended by telling us: “This is a fight we want. This is a fight we will win.”

In saying that, Secretary Cayetano was not just referring to our efforts to protect the rights and promote the welfare of our workers in Kuwait. He was referring to a much larger fight—our fight against kafala—the practice that has kept many of our kababayan in the Middle East in virtual bondage. It is a fight that we are not only leading, it is a fight that we are winning.

The diplomatic stalemate lasted a few weeks. It saw the President declaring not just a labor deployment ban but also threatening to bring home all our workers from Kuwait if their protection could not be guaranteed. The President wanted our workers to have possession of their passports and access to mobile phones. He wanted adequate rest for them and proper nourishment.

Secretary Cayetano asked for more. He wanted those who still have not been rescued to be turned over to the custody of the Embassy and repatriated along with those who were still in the shelters. He also requested that abusive employers be held accountable for the maltreatment of their Filipino workers.

A few weeks later, the Philippines and Kuwait signed the the Bilateral Labor Agreement that guaranteed better treatment and protection for our household service workers. No less than Secretary Cayetano and his counterpart, Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Sabah Al Khaled Al Ahmad Al Sabah signed on behalf of the two countries. The deployment ban to Kuwait was soon after lifted.

In September, Secretary Cayetano met Foreign Minister Al Sabah met on the sides of the 72nd Session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York. I was there to see the two ministers hug each other like long-lost friends. Both agreed that the past is past and it was time to leave it behind and move forward.

The controversy generated by the release of the rescue videos and the President’s firm stand to protect our workers was also felt outside Kuwait. It opened doors for cooperation with other Gulf States. We are now working with Bahrain in finding ways to deal with the kafala system. We are also working with other host countries in the region who have taken notice of what we did and have started taking action to improve the conditions not just of Filipinos but also other migrant workers.

A few weeks ago in Morocco, the Philippines scored a major victory when it joined other UN member states in adopting the final text of the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration—an international agreement that seeks to provide decent treatment to migrants all over the world.

A few weeks ago in Morocco, the Philippines scored a major victory when it joined other UN member states in adopting the final text of the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration—an international agreement that seeks to provide decent treatment to migrants all over the world.

Objective 6 of the Global Compact contains two paragraphs proposed by the Philippines. These are Paragraphs G and H. These paragraphs contain anti-kafala provisions that we were able to successfully push with the help of other countries, most especially Bahrain. The Global Compact was adopted a few weeks later by the UN General Assembly with 153 countries voting in favor.

Kuwait was the most traumatic period in my diplomatic career. What I went through was nothing compared to what others had to go through. Undersecretary Arriola was also publicly shamed. Ambassador Rene Villa got expelled for refusing to disclose the names of Manila-based Filipino diplomats involved in the rescue. Executive Director Dado and several other diplomats were charged with kidnapping and forced to seek shelter at the Embassy. Our drivers were arrested and likewise charged.

But these are all small sacrifices that public servants like us sometimes have to make for our country and our people. What happened in Kuwait in April allowed us to tell the world what the President had said: “Filipinos are slaves to no one, anywhere and everywhere.”

But these are all small sacrifices that public servants like us sometimes have to make for our country and our people. What happened in Kuwait in April allowed us to tell the world what the President had said: “Filipinos are slaves to no one, anywhere and everywhere.”

As we move past this episode and bring with us many lessons learned, we also renew our pledge to continue the fight to free our people from the bondage of modern-day slavery. It is a fight we must win.

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