Duterte renews call to dismantle kafala system in UN address

President Duterte has renewed his call to end the controversial kafala or sponsorship system and all other structures that exploit and oppress migrant workers.

President Duterte virtually delivers his speech at the 76th United Nations General Assembly on September 22, 2021 (Manila time). (RTVM/UN/MB Screenshot)

Duterte made the statement as he virtually addressed the 76th United Nations General Assembly on Wednesday morning, September 22 (Manila time).

In his speech, the President noted how millions of Filipinos work overseas under the "most difficult and inhumane" circumstances.

"We call for the abolition of all structures that allow the exploitation and oppression of migrant workers," he said.

"The Kafala System is one such behemoth that chains the weak, the desperate, and the voiceless to an existence of unimaginable suffering. Nothing can justify the continued existence of this unjust system," he added," he added.

Duterte said simply reforming the kafala system will not be enough to address the situation.

"While reforms have been made, the Kafala System must be dismantled sooner or later in the name of justice and basic decency," he said.

According to the President, the Philippines continues to seek stronger partnerships to protect the rights of Filipinos and realize their full potential.

"But let me be clear: what we mean is partnership that respects our people's agency," he said.

The kafala, or sponsorship, system regulates the lives of millions of migrant laborers in the Middle East. However, exploitation, human rights abuses, racism, and gender discrimination have fueled calls for reform.

This was not the first time President Duterte expressed his stand against the kafala system. In January this year, he commended the Kingdom of Bahrain in its efforts to dismantle the "egregious" system and expressed the Philippines' readiness to help the Kingdom in this endeavor.

His Royal Highness Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, in response, highlighted the importance of cooperation on human rights and migrant workers’ rights in multilateral fora in order to effectively end the kafala system and address related issues, including human trafficking.

As early as 2016, Presidential Assistant on Foreign Affairs Robert Borje recalled that the President has been very clear about his advocacy to look after the welfare of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs), many of whom have been subjected to abuse because of the kafala system.

The Palace chief of protocol revealed that Duterte even works “behind the scenes”, writing letters to leaders of countries in the Middle East and the Gulf states, including royalties and kings, to express his concern about the system.

Bahrain, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia have already started implementing reforms such as the removal of the exit visa that would allow OFWs or all migrant workers for that matter, to leave the country without necessarily seeking the permission of their employer.