efe-epaManila

Nearly 1,000 Filipino migrant workers have been repatriated this year after facing labor abuse and exploitation in the United Arab Emirates, the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs said on Thursday.

Since January, 969 Philippine citizens have returned to their native country, out of 777 who had sought refuge in the Philippine embassy in Abu Dhabi and its consulate in Dubai.

"I condemn strongly the abuses being experienced by our OFWs (overseas Filipino workers) in the hands of their recruiters or employers," Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano said in a statement.

According to DFA data, there are 643,000 registered Filipino workers in the UAE, most of them in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, although the real number could be much higher if thousands of undocumented workers are taken into account.

Philippine women mostly find work as domestic help in the UAE, while the majority of the men are employed in the construction sector, often in dangerous conditions and without employment guarantees.

"When these abuses happen, the DFA can be expected to act decisively to protect our (citizens) and bring them home," Cayetano said.

In his annual State of the Nation address on Monday, President Rodrigo Duterte had insisted that the well-being of Philippine citizens abroad was the main foreign policy thrust of his government,

The controversy over abuse and exploitation of Filipino workers abroad escalated in February when the corpse of Joanna Demafelis, a 29-year old Philippine woman, was found in the freezer of her employers' house in Kuwait, after she had been missing for a year.

The incident led to Duterte banning Filipino workers from going to Kuwait, which later expelled the Philippine ambassador, although the two countries normalized ties in May and the ban was lifted.

On Thursday, the Philippines announced that it would launch an online program to tackle abuse and check fake offers and the 3,000 workers who leave the country daily to work abroad would be able to assess the contract offered by the employment agency.

Around 10 million Filipinos are employed abroad, and their remittances are vital for the Philippine economy.