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Reflections on the PH-Kuwait diplomatic row

First of 2 parts

POOR Ambassador Renato Villa, expelled Philippine Ambassador to Kuwait. He seems to have been caught in a no-win, damn-if-you-do-damn-if-you-don’t situation, torn between doing what is diplomatically correct and following the dictates of higher authorities in Manila! Not a very encouraging prospect for career ambassadors making their way to the top of their profession. Nobody remembers any Philippine ambassador before Villa who was declared persona non grata by the host government over the issue of rescuing household workers maltreated by their employers. He was the first; will he be the last?

The protection of our nationals abroad is a prime function and duty of Filipino diplomats. In recent decades, it has even been proclaimed as one of the three pillars of Philippine foreign policy. But even without provisions of law and policy, there is surely involved a matter of conscience, a moral imperative to help one’s fellowmen in distressful, even life-threatening situations. Need a Filipino diplomat risk his tenure at a post by following the orders of his office and conscience?

Rooted in culture

Putting the recent Philippine-Kuwait diplomatic row in context would be helpful in answering these questions.

The maltreatment of Filipino overseas workers, particularly of predominantly female household workers has actually been a longstanding problem of our diplomatic missions particularly in the Middle East. It emerged as a main challenge of Filipino diplomats in the Middle East almost from the beginning of the flight in droves to the area of Filipinos in search of jobs. My senior colleague, Ambassador Jaime Yambao recalls that when he, in mid-career, was posted in Saudi Arabia in 1979, the embassy then located in Jeddah, would be transformed every night, as if by a magic wand, into a dormitory for OFWs who had run away from abusive employers. By morning they would clean up the place and be gone, if they were lucky, to work part-time somewhere, or simply roam the streets or gather in the markets and other public places. A ban on the deployment of household workers to the kingdom and other countries in the region had been in place. (The runaway workers were soon enough repatriated to the Philippines after arrangement with the authorities. The recruitment ban was gradually eased with the embassy carefully scrutinizing employers requesting for Filipino household helpers.)

The problem of the maltreatment of Filipino workers in the Middle East has indeed proved impossible to eradicate. It’s not one that can be solved overnight. This is because it has wide and deep roots in the societies and cultures of the area. The work of household workers used to be performed by slaves who were regarded as commodities that could be traded and disposed of in any manner a master willed. The problem is also related to the status of women in the Middle East, ostensibly prized as jewels but treated by rights as second-class citizens. If the female employer is treated as second-class, what will that make of her household help? Many employers consider themselves as just fortunate or blessed that they can get from the Philippines household workers with some education, often a college degree, who are personable and have hygienic ways , and who have even have undergone special training as household workers (provided by Tesda and private tutorship.)

The final solution to the problem depends on education and social reform which obviously lie with the leaders, authorities, and population of the host country. The diplomatic missions in the Middle East must simply cope with the problem each time it rears its ugly head. I believe as former Ambassador to Qatar that a Philippine Embassy should, could, and do learn to craft strategies to prevent and address cases of maltreatment of OFWs by their employers.

Rules of thumb

There are in this regard rules of thumb. One is bearing in mind the provisions of the Vienna Convention of Diplomatic and Consular Relations 0f 1961. The convention allows foreign countries to protect their nationals abroad but at the same time enjoins them to observe the laws of the host country. These parameters actually provide enough room for maneuver to set a working system of relationships with concerned local authorities the embassy can resort to in addressing the problems of its country’s workers, Given a friendly atmosphere between the embassy and the government, local authorities do turn a blind eye to efforts of the embassy to rescue workers from abusive employers.

From experience, I must advise that efforts to help maltreated OFWs must be exerted with caution and discretion, with a constant awareness of the sensitivities of local authorities and population. The desire to help our fellowmen in distress must be separated from less noble intentions as scoring brownie points at home. I am confident that every Philippine Embassy in the Middle East can boast of concrete accomplishments in dealing with the problem of maltreated OFWs. But boast they do not. The SOP is to submit a report to the home office about the matter and leave it to the DFA press office to publicize the matter if deemed worthy. Unless a worker loses his life or lands in hospital, such reports more often than not end up being marked as routine and quietly filed away. But no matter. The career diplomat has the invaluable professional satisfaction of having done his duty.

(To be continued tomorrow)

Isaias F. Begonia was ambassador to Qatar from 2006 to 2008.

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