MANILA — President Rodrigo Duterte on Tuesday called for the "complete abolition" of the "kafala" sponsorship system, which he said places migrant workers "in the most vulnerable situation."
Commonly practiced in Arab countries, the kafala system requires migrant workers to have a sponsor in the host country so that a visa and worker's permit can be issued. This means that foreigners' right to work is dependent on their employers, making them vulnerable to abuse.
The kafala system has led to non-payment of wages, restriction of workers' movement, denial of health care, "perpetual exploitation," and "outright murder," Duterte said in a taped message during a forum on labor rights.
"We cannot justify the denial of basic human rights and the fundamental freedoms of any individual, regardless of status. That is why the Philippine government strongly calls for the complete abolition of the kafala system, sooner rather than later," Duterte said.
"The kafala system is unjust, exploitative. It places thousands of migrant workers, particularly household workers, in the most vulnerable situation— unseen, unheard and unable to defend their dignity as a human being," he added.
The COVID-19 pandemic "has exposed migrant workers, especially those under the kafala system, to even more precarious position," he said.
"As the world went into lockdowns, many were driven into destitution, with no job, no social safety nets, and no money to send back home. This cannot go on," said the President.
"We must address the structural inequalities. Our pandemic responses must be inclusive, with no room for any of this discrimination."
Duterte said he welcomes the reform initiatives of Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar, and Bahrain.
"As I have said before, the Filipino is not a slave to anyone, anywhere. I dream of the day when working abroad becomes a choice, and not a need," said Duterte.
"But while this remains a vision the Philippines strongly advocates, [and] works with all partners to realize the global impact of safe, orderly and regular migration."
The Philippines has around 2.2 million migrant workers, whose remittances serve as lifeline to the Philippine economy, according to 2019 government data.
Saudi Arabia is the most preferred destination of overseas Filipino workers, who represent 22.4 percent of OFWs. The United Arab Emirates follows, hosting 13.2 percent of OFWs.