Even with the creation of a new department solely for overseas Filipino workers (OFWs), abuses of foreign employers in the Middle East cannot be prevented due to their deep-rooted ‘kafala’ or sponsorship system.
Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon made the inference after an official of the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) said in a Senate hearing Monday, March 8, that no agency can stop the abuses being committed against OFWs despite agreements between the Philippines and countries in the Middle East for their protection.
“Whether or not it’s a department, it will not change anything, you will still have to overcome the culture in the Middle East in so far as the treatment of our OFWs is concerned,” said Drilon, who is a former labor secretary.
“In other words, the creation of a new department will not change the culture,” he added.
Drilon further noted: “As we all know when we were learning freshmen in law school, a source of law is culture. And in the Middle East, the culture of kafala is something that is embedded in their culture.”
At the third hearing of the Senate labor committee on the proposed establishment of the Department of Overseas Filipinos (DOFIL), DFA Undersecretary Sarah Lou Arriola admitted that abuses cannot be prevented in countries that have the kafala system.
Under the kafala system, private companies and employers are allowed to have control over migrant workers, their employment, mobility, as well as their immigration status.
The system has been criticized globally due to reports of abuses and exploitation, including the deaths of several Filipino domestic workers.
“There is always a disconnect between the practice and what’s on paper…Even if there’s a bilateral labor agreement, even if everything’s in place, we could not control the abuses because they happen in the homes,” Arriola told the senators.
She also mentioned that household service workers were not covered, and would always be last to be included, in any labor protection laws in the Middle East.
She said the Philippines government can only intervene and act to help victims when the abuses already took place.
Arriola said that while governments in the Middle East have been cooperative, “there is resistance from some of the population”, specifically their business sector, which feared that the abolition of the kafala system “will entail loss of income”.
“There are steps taken by most of the countries, but we have to realize that it will be really difficult for any agency to be able to stop the abuse,” the DFA official said.
To this statement, Drilon said: “We need a conscious policy of training nd upscaling our OFWs. And because of the culture that confronts our OFWs, and no department creation will change it. It is the consistency in following the policy of the DFA and the Department of Labor [and Employment] that these things can be achieved, which they are doing now.”
“The solution is not the simple creation of a department, but long-term plan for us to stop this abuses,” he pointed out.
Sen. Joel Villanueva, Senate labor committee chairman, said the Philippines should continue pushing for reforms addressing the kafala system.
Citing data from the Philippines Overseas Labor Office, he said a total of 4,302 cases of maltreatment and mistreatment were recorded in the MIddle East in 2020, while there were 21,127 contract violations in the same region last year.
“Kahit mag-deploy po tayo ng skilled workers, kung pupuntahan nilang bansa ay may mga ganitong patakaran, mahihirapan po tayo na protektahan ang ating mga manggagawa (Even if we deploy skilled workers, and they will go to a country with this policy, then it will still be difficult for us to protect our workers),” Villanueva said.
Still, Arriola said there is a need to create the DOFIL “for focus” to address all problems confronting OFWs, saying the kafala system is only one of them.