Hold on to your passport – if you can

Hernan S. Melencio
The sponsorship system in Saudi Arabia is a form of modern-day slavery

Malacañang recently told Filipino workers in Saudi Arabia that they have the right to refuse to surrender their passports to their employers.

“Under Saudi and Philippine law, (you) have the right to keep and hold on to (your) Philippine passports while working in Saudi Arabia,” it said. “The Philippine passport is considered to be the property of the Republic of the Philippines and only the bearer has the right to keep it in his custody.” Big deal.

This announcement, originating from the Philippine Embassy in Riyadh on May 21 and repeated by the Office of the President in a press release on May 26, was actually a “reiteration” of previous announcements by Philippine and Saudi authorities – which have been largely ignored or dismissed by overseas Filipinos, especially those working in the Middle East.

It’s not hard to understand why. First, the Philippine government is barking up the wrong tree. Telling OFWs they have the right to keep their passports is like telling them they have the right to keep their wallet when being robbed; or urging them to tell their bosses that committing abuses is illegal.

Second, it’s useless – even dangerous – to ask Saudi employers to let you keep your passport. It’s either you shut up or ship out. And Filipino domestic workers are in more vulnerable straits having to rely on the goodwill and generosity of their masters. They would rather earn small favors, like a full meal and rest hours, than earn the ire of their lords by bringing up such “trivial” issue as a passport.

Third, many OFWs have enough problems obtaining a work visa, called “iqama,” to even haggle for the “privilege” of holding on to their own passports.

Fourth, some OFWs don’t see the benefit of keeping their own passports since they can’t leave the country anyway without an exit visa, which only the employer, as the sponsor, has the power to provide.

The Philippine Embassy in Riyadh said Saudi employers who keep the passports of their workers are violating a Council of Ministers resolution, enacted on July 14, 2000, which states that “every employee has the right to keep his passport in his custody.”

As an editor who spent more than ten years in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, I admit that this is the first time that I’ve heard of such a resolution. And it’s a shame for I came back home for good only in December 2008, eight years since the law was passed. Being in the news business and ignorant of such law is embarrassing and outrageous. My employer, Saudi Gazette, kept my passport and in exchange I got an iqama. I had no complaints because it was the norm – and I believe it still is – although now I hear of extremely rare cases of OFWs in Saudi Arabia keeping their passports and iqamas.

But even if I had known about the Saudi decision on passports early on and begged for its publication, I think it wouldn’t have made any difference. The employers were flouting it and the Saudi government was not too keen on implementing it; proof is that it kept the law “secret” for a very long time, commenting about it publicly only early this year.

Are you kidding?

From January to March this year, Saudi newspapers carried news in trickles about the warning of the Council of Ministers and the Ministry of Labor against employers holding the passports of their employees. The new contract template issued by the Ministry of Labor is said to specifically contain the workers’ right to keep their passports. 

The Philippine Embassy’s announcement in May stressed that the “Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs reiterated … that [the] rule remains in effect and that any overseas Filipino worker (OFW) whose passport has been kept by their employer has a right to complain to the Ministry of Labor or the police.” 

“Complain to the police. Are you kidding?” said one reader commenting on a news report. “Have you ever seen a policeman favor an expat over a Saudi in a traffic dispute? The police will just laugh at you if you complain.”

Then I remember a story about how a Saudi cop would tell an expat that it was his fault that his car got hit by a car driven a Saudi. “It wouldn’t have happened if you didn’t come here in the first place,” the cop would say. I thought it was just a story, until it happened to my friend – and to another friend, with me inside the car. We survived with minor backaches and humongous hurt pride. And there were witnesses. My friend spent a night in jail.

“The big question is how can a country enact laws but then allow its citizens to disobey them with impunity?” said another commenter. “This is a big joke. Most employers in Saudi Arabia are holding the passports of their employees. It’s not a secret; it’s common practice. And what is the Ministry of Labor doing about it?”

Beyond implementation

For me, the Philippine government should not pit the OFWs against their employers because the former will always end up the losers as the latter are the ones holding the purse. Informing the OFWs of their right to keep their passports is one thing; helping them exercise this right is another. And the government can help by doing its job of taking the cudgels for the OFWs and negotiating directly with the Saudi government for actual implementation of the law.

The issue, however, is not simply implementation. It needs policy reform, particularly on the sponsorship system, which is just a form of modern-day slavery. Under this system, employers pay for bringing workers into the country. To protect their “investment” the Saudi government allows the employers to control the movement of the workers, ensuring that they enter and exit on their terms.

No wonder most employers treat their employees as property and keep their passports and legal papers to make sure that they don’t abscond. 

In big, profitable companies the owners can be lenient and allow employees relatively free movement. But in sweatshops and some households, the workers suffer in silence. They could not leave or transfer employment, and their bosses blackmail them and extort money from them in exchange for the release of their passports. – Rappler.com


Hernan Melencio is an editor and blogger. He edits for an IT-related government project.


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