The Philippines, one of the world's biggest exporters of labour, has taken the bold step of blacklisting 41 countries which it says do not adequately protect foreign workers.
The ban, which applies to countries including India, Afghanistan, Libya, North Korea and Pakistan, was imposed following persistent reports of workers, particularly maids, being abused by their employers.
An estimated nine million Filipinos, or nearly 10 per cent of the population, work abroad, mainly as maids, labourers or seamen. Their remittances – hard currency earnings sent home to families – have traditionally kept the Philippine economy afloat.
Most of the countries on the blacklist have only a few hundred Filipino workers, so the ban will have a limited effect. However, the government is considering extending it to several Middle Eastern countries, where complaints of abuse and mistreatment are most common, the Labour Secretary, Rosalinda Baldoz,said. More than a million Filipinos work in the Middle East.
The blacklisting follows a temporary ban imposed by Cambodia last month on domestic workers being sent to Malaysia. Indonesia, for its part, recently announced that a two-year moratorium on its nationals working as maids in Malaysia will be lifted on 1 December.
The move by Cambodia follows reports of maids being starved, beaten and sexually abused by employers. Many complain that their passports are confiscated and their salaries withheld.
A report by Human Rights Watch this week said that after arriving in Malaysia, maids were forcibly confined in training centres for three months without adequate food, water or medical care.
The Philippines passed a law in 2009 which outlawed workers being sent to countries that had failed either to sign international conventions protecting foreign labour, pass their own laws offering such protection or reach bilateral agreements with the Philippines.
The 41 countries named by the Department of Labour and Employment as lacking such safeguards include Iraq, Sudan, Chad, Haiti, Cambodia and Zimbabwe. Carlos Cao, head of the government's overseas employment agency,said: "These are the smaller countries with small markets. The negative impact is not going to be very big."
The ban will not affect Filipino workers already in place in those countries, who will be permitted to stay until their contracts expire. Multinational companies with supposedly higher labour standards will be exempted from the ban, which will be lifted if countries take adequate steps to protect workers from abuse and allow them to seek help if they are mistreated.
Filipinos who want to work abroad have to obtain government approval, although some depart without going through official channels. John Leonard Monterona, from a group called Migrante, which campaigns for better protection for overseas workers, said the exodus amounted to "forced migration".