Kuwait suspends new visas for Philippines workers in rights row

FILE PHOTO: Overseas Filipino Workers (OFW) from Kuwait hold their documents as they queue upon their arrival at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Pasay city, Metro Manila

KUWAIT (Reuters) - Kuwait has suspended all new visas for Philippine nationals indefinitely, the interior ministry confirmed this week, in an escalation of a row between the oil-rich Gulf state and Manila over worker protections and employer rights.

Philippine nationals make up around 6% of Kuwait's 4.7 million population, government data shows. Kuwaitis make up 32%.

The visa suspension comes after the Philippines in February stopped the first-time deployment of domestic workers to Kuwait after the body of domestic worker Jullebee Ranara was found in the Kuwaiti desert in January.

Large numbers of Philippine citizens work overseas, with around 10% of its gross domestic product coming from remittances. Many work in oil-rich Gulf states like Kuwait as low-paid domestic workers, where visa systems tie a worker to one employer and make migrant workers vulnerable to abuse - including employers confiscating their passports.

The interior ministry on Wednesday said the Philippines had violated a bilateral labour agreement. The two countries signed an agreement in 2018 following a previous row over worker protections in the wake of several domestic worker deaths.

Listed violations include housing workers in shelters, searching for runaways without involving state institutions, communicating with Kuwaiti citizens without permission from authorities and pressuring Kuwaiti employers to add clauses to employment contracts.

A week ago the Philippines Department of Foreign Affairs said all actions taken by the Philippines Embassy and government are "to ensure the safety and welfare of our own nationals".

"Providing protection to a country's citizens abroad is a well-established duty of consular offices under international law and conventions," the statement said.

The Philippine embassy in Kuwait did not respond to a request for comment.

(Reporting by Ahmed Hagagy and Lisa Barrington; Editing by Conor Humphries)