[OPINION | Dash of SAS] 2019: A turbulent year for OFWs

Political unrest in the Middle East, red-tagging of members of migrant rights organizations, and the growing right-wing populist movement in western Europe and the US are the major issues that made 2019 a turbulent year for overseas Filipino workers (OFWs), labor rights group Migrante International said in a forum last December 18.

Political unrest

The civil unrest in the Middle East, the largest labor market for the Philippines, is contributing to the political and economic crisis in the region. There are an estimated 2 million OFWs employed in the Middle East. In Saudi Arabia alone, there are more than 1 million OFWs.

In Saudi Arabia, the escalation of the conflict between Saudi and Yemenite forces in the border regions of Asir, Jizan, and Najran is affecting some 40,000 OFWs.

According to Joseph Valenzuela of Migrante Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), the organization is handling some 500 labor cases, mostly involving domestic workers, and is assisting 1,500 workers laid off due to  “Saudization” – a government policy by the Saudi government to prioritize the employment of Saudi nationals over foreign nationals in the private sector.

“Companies are laying off the Filipino workers without giving them their salaries or benefits. Workers are told that they can claim their benefits here in the Philippines but that does not happen,” said Valenzuela.

Valenzuela added that as early as now, the Philippine government needs to prepare for the full impact of “Saudization” which is part of the KSA’s Vision 2030, the country’s blueprint for national development.  

Meanwhile in Lebanon, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) began repatriating Filipinos this month after mass protests erupted over controversial tax measures. Many establishments closed amid the protests leaving many OFWs jobless or without a stable income.

The unstable political environment compounds the perennial labor problems that hound the kafala or sponsorship system that govern employer and employee relations in the Middle East. The kafala system restricts the employee’s ability to transfer from one employer to another, seek labor protection for unpaid wages, and even leave country. Human rights organizations and labor rights groups have criticized the kafala system as enabling a modern day slave trade.

Valenzuela slammed the absence of a bilateral agreement between the Philippine and Middle Eastern governments to ease the restrictions under the kafala system.

In Hong Kong, after more than 6 months of protests over a controversial extradition bill, OFWs are starting to feel the economic pinch exacerbated by the mandatory Social Security System (SSS)  and other state exactions being imposed on them. Earlier this year, OFWs filed a petition with the Supreme Court to nullify the provisions of RA 111999 which classifies land-based OFWs as self-employed and thus mandated to pay SSS contributions. Unlike regular employees who share the cost of SSS contributions with employers, OFWs said that they cannot mandate their employers to share in the SSS contributions because they are foreigners.

“The Duterte government exhibits aggressiveness and efficiency in extorting OFWs through these mandatory exactions and yet when we plead for help in times of our distress, they just turn a deaf ear to our cries,” said Shiela Tebia of Migrante Hong Kong. 

About 20 OFW groups and federations in Hong Kong have formed an alliance called RAGE or Rise Against Government Exactions to oppose government-mandated contributions.

Red-tagging of migrant rights groups

Locally, activists have raised concerns over red-tagging or labeling and harassment of individuals and organizations because of alleged communist or leftist ties under the Duterte administration’s “Whole of Nation Approach” outlined in Executive Order 70.

This has led to the crackdown on activists across various sectors. Migrante warned that the crackdown is not limited to domestic organizations.

According to Joanna Concepcion, chairperson of Migrante International in the Philippines, they have received reports of members of the Philippine police attaché using outreach programs positioned as a “student activism and drug awareness symposium” to red-tag the Saudi Arabia chapters of Migrante International and women’s rights group, Gabriela.

“This is part of the various schemes employed by the Duterte government to completely obliterate the remaining portions of democratic space safeguarded by grassroots advocacy groups. These are very dangerous times,” said Concepcion.

Adam Coogle, Human Rights Watch Middle East Researcher, said that Migrante and Gabriela have every reason to be alarmed over their red-tagging, particularly in a country like Saudi Arabia. 

“Arbitrary arrest is certainly a risk and there is not much you can do once you get arrested. Saudi Arabia is not a place where you can speak freely,” said Coogle.

Right Wing Policies

In Western European countries, the continued rise of right-wing populist policies with restrictive immigration policies at its core have contributed to the criminalization of migrants. According to Fr Herbert Fadriquela of Migrante United Kingdom who spoke via video call, undocumented and other irregular migrants are threatened by fierce crackdown and prolonged detention.

Migrante International Philippines’ Concepcion said that the government’s proposal to establish a Department of Overseas Filipinos will not address these core migrant issues.

“Departmentalization is not the solution; addressing our demands for stable jobs and just wages in the Philippines is what we want,” Concepcion said.  

The proposed Department of Overseas Filipinos will be set up with the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) at its core. The Department of Foreign Affairs Office of the Undersecretary for Migrant Workers’ Affairs (DFA-OUMWA) will also be moved under its supervision.

Susan Ople of the Blas Ople Center said in a BusinessMirror op-ed piece: “To be fair, there are a lot of good provisions incorporated in the Bill…. All Filipino migrants will now have a single and quite powerful house in government to call their own.”

In the coming year, the government will have to engage migrant worker groups across the globe and their host countries to ensure that OFWs are adequately insulated from the tectonic shifts that are affecting labor markets. – Rappler.com

Ana P. Santos writes about sexual health rights, sexuality and gender for Rappler. She is the 2014 Miel Fellow under the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and a 2018 Senior Atlantic Fellow for Health Equity in Southeast Asia.Follow her on Twitter at @iamAnaSantos and on Facebook at @SexandSensibilities.com