PH - Saudi Arabia relations

Philippines lifting OFW deployment ban to Saudi Arabia in November

Michelle Abad
Philippines lifting OFW deployment ban to Saudi Arabia in November

Hundreds of repatriates, home at last. The government once more brought home hundreds of distressed overseas Filipinos from the Gulf state on June 25, 2021. The Philippine delegation led by Presidential Assistant on Foreign Affairs and Special Envoy Robert E. A. Borje, together with Undersecretary for Migrant Workers’ Affairs Sarah Arriola, accompanied some 301 repatriates, including six infants, from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to Ninoy Aquino International Airport Terminal 1 via a Philippine Airlines chartered flight. Upon their arrival, the repatriates received P10,000 cash assistance each from the Philippine government, based on the instruction of President Rodrigo Roa Duterte. As Kalinga at Malasakit for OFWs remains a key priority for the Duterte administration, the repatriation missions are anchored on President Duterte’s promise to care for overseas Filipinos around the world, particularly with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Upon disembarkation, all repatriates underwent mandatory medical tests prior to proceeding to their respective quarantine facilities. PRESIDENTIAL PHOTO

PRESIDENTIAL PHOTO

Philippine and Saudi labor officials agree to several reforms which aim to allow better monitoring of OFWs in distress in the gulf state

MANILA, Philippines – The Philippines will lift a year-long ban on overseas Filipino workers’ (OFWs) deployment to Saudi Arabia on November 7, Migrant Workers Secretary Susan “Toots” Ople said on Tuesday, September 13.

The announcement came following days of bilateral talks between the two countries on how to improve the welfare of the hundreds of thousands of OFWs working in Saudi Arabia.

“The DMW (Department of Migrant Workers) and the MHRSD (Ministry of Human Resources and Social Development) have reached an agreement to resume the deployment of Filipino workers to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia starting November 7th, 2022,” the two agencies said in a joint press release.

The Philippines halted the processing of new applications for deployment to Saudi Arabia in November 2021. Some reasons for the ban included the reported billions worth of unpaid wages of Filipino construction workers, and allegations of a retired general abusing several Filipino workers.

In the joint statement, the MHRSD said it values the “significant contribution of OFWs to economic and social development,” and it shares the DMW’s vision of a rights-based approach to labor migration.

Saudi Arabia is the world’s top destination of OFWs, according to the Philippine Statistics Authority. There are around 470,820 OFWs based in the Kingdom as of 2020.

Steps towards better welfare protection

Tales of OFWs being abused in Saudi Arabia make constant appearances in the media. The DMW and the MHRSD agreed to the following action points in taking greater care of OFWs in the Kingdom:

  • Create a technical working group composed of representatives from both agencies to monitor the implementation of labor reforms, and jointly resolve concerns of workers
  • Implement a blacklist and whitelist of recruitment agencies and employers in both countries, based on criteria agreed upon by both sides
  • Revise the Standard Employment Contract of OFWs to reflect all guarantees in the Saudi Labor Reform Initiatives, including:
    • insurance for unpaid wages
    • timely release of salaries through electronic payments
    • a pre-termination clause, which OFWs or the Philippine government can invoke once abuse is reported
  • Ensure implementation of a fully automated recruitment process in both countries
  • Sign a memorandum of understanding to fight human trafficking, investigate and prosecute offenders, and provide support to OFW trafficking victims in both countries
  • Convene regular joint committee meetings to monitor full compliance with the action points listed above, as well as developments of recruitment procedures in both countries

“We are grateful to [MHRSD Minister Ahmad Bin Sulaiman Al-Rajhi] and the government of Saudi Arabia for sharing our concern for the rights of our workers. Likewise, we intend to move forward by working together on implementing mechanisms that would ensure the protection of our workers’ rights and welfare,” Ople said.

The DMW said that the Saudi labor ministry committed to reviewing a proposal from the DMW to reduce the duration of employment contracts of domestic workers to one year. These workers would have the option to extend for another year, but with a vacation leave of 15 days in between, Ople said.

Was the ban effective in reducing abuses?

Ople said she felt the sincerity of the Saudi government in its efforts to curb OFW abuse, as it was proactive in gathering facts about welfare cases. The Philippine delegation is set to return to Manila on Wednesday evening, September 14, with around 100 OFWs staying in shelters in Saudi Arabia. But before they left, Ople said Saudi officials went to the embassy to interview the OFWs who were recommended to go home.

In fact, ‘yung human rights commission nila, nagpadala pa ng team para dumalaw sa ating shelter sa Riyadh para maintindihan nila ‘yung mga push factors kung bakit nagiging welfare case ‘yung ating mga kasambahays. So this only shows na they are cognizant na meron din silang mga pagkukulang, meron din kailangang gawin na reporma on both sides,” said Ople.

(In fact, their human rights commission sent a team to visit our shelter in Riyadh so they can understand the push factors as to why our domestic workers become welfare cases. So this only shows that they are cognizant of their shortcomings, that there must be reforms on both sides.)

DMW Undersecretary Patricia Yvonne Caunan highlighted a new labor reform where OFWs can obtain faster transfers of employment. In this reform, Caunan said, they would no longer need clearances of approval from their previous employers to transfer work if they run into issues like breach of contract, failure to pay salary, maltreatment, and being made to work for someone who is not the employer, among others.

On whether the ban was an effective push to make the Saudi government convict more abusers, Ople said that “it’s not for us to say.” She said that the ban became an opening to better relations between the two countries.

“Based on my conversation with the minister, he told me, ‘Tell us where we can help, who we should help.’ Because he said they were shocked when we suspended [deployment]. They said there was no advance warning, and nothing was said about what we needed. Now we have a mechanism where both sides can talk about a problem before it can get worse,” she said in a mix of English and Filipino.

Ople flew to Saudi Arabia following her participation in President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s state visits to Indonesia and Singapore from September 4 to 7. – Rappler.com

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Michelle Abad

Michelle Abad is a researcher-writer with the investigative unit of Rappler. She also covers overseas Filipinos and the rights of women and children.