OFWs in the  Middle East need more protection

Published June 14, 2021, 12:09 AM

by Jun Concepcion

OFW Forum

Jun Concepcion

Kaisylyn Cuya Lopez, a Filipino domestic helper in Saudi Arabia and a single mother of a four-year old boy, desperately needs help. While safe for now under the care of Philippine embassy staff, she constantly fears getting jailed or even beheaded under stringent Muslim laws across the Middle East. Kaisyln has been accused of killing a family member of her last employer, a pending claim she denies but to no avail so far.

After “getting sold” twice by previous employers and enduring constant physical abuses and threats of getting killed, she escaped from her last employer and sought embassy help. But far from ending her misery, her escape has now made it extremely difficult to get her last employer’s endorsement of an exit visa that Kaisyln  needs for her to leave Saudi Arabia and go home to her family. For now, Kaisyln is trapped in that Mid-East country, fearing for her life and unable to get much help from embassy staff – due mainly to the prevailing Kafala system in the region and the government’s inexplicable failure to do anything about Kafala.

Put in place in the 1950s, the Kafala scheme originally aimed  to regulate the presence of imported workers in the Middle East. However, Kafala has since evolved into a scheme that stripped foreign workers of most of their human  rights and enabled employers to “enslave” foreign workers, like Kaisyln and countless other OFWs. Kafala allows employers to “sell” their maids to other employers, with the cost of each transfer – often around 200,000 pesos — unjustly passed on to a foreign worker and puts the latter heavily in debt even not of her making.  Kafala also restricts severely mobility of foreign workers, including leaving for their home countries as they need to secure prior exit visas endorsed by their employers.

Further aggravating  the plight of foreign workers, including OFWs, is their lack of sufficient legal protection under host governments. Despite the never-ending series of rapes, horrific physical abuses and even deaths of OFWs in the hands of their employers or their kin, culprits are very seldom charged and prosecuted successfully. Does the Philippine government ever care about this repugnant lack of legal protection of OFWs in the Middle East? From various indications, hardly, if at all. More often than not, all that the government does is arrange the repatriation home of bruised and raped OFWs or their cadavers.

Can something be done so OFWs in general are treated more humanely and abuses minimized? Yes, certainly. Especially if senior labor officials, notably Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello and POEA Administrator Bernard Olalia, can muster ample political will. In this regard, the following measures should be seriously considered for adoption:

1] The government should immediately ban further deployments to a Mid-East country the next time an OFW gets raped, abused or killed there in a brutal and horrific manner. While a deployment ban will undoubtedly fuel controversy, it can easily be justified by labor officials who can say the ban is for the good of Filipino women in general. More likely than not, host governments will react to a deployment ban and the government should take the opportunity to ask for concessions, especially  greater respect and dignity for OFWs, lest the ban remains in place. And what if a host government reacts negatively? No problem! Simply say that Filipino women can be directed to Asian countries where they are generally treated much better than in the Mid-East.

2] The ban should remain in place until the culprit is charged and prosecuted successfully.

3] The ban should not be lifted simply after receiving a pledge – often empty than sincere and solid — to prosecute the culprit. Over the years, how many culprits have been prosecuted for horrendous abuses and killings of OFWs? Hardly, if any. This indicates labor officials have been remiss in adequately safeguarding OFWs’ rights in the Middle East.

4] Press host Middle East governments for much expanded – if not equal – protection of OFWs under the latter’s criminal justice system, like what’s provided to local citizens.

Flimsy improvements in work and living conditions secured so far by labor officials, like OFWs’ access to their mobile phone or passport, aren’t simply good and far enough. They should do much better. Minimal improvements of OFWs’ lot reflect mediocre public service. Obtaining adequate protection under the criminal justice system of host governments isn’t improbable and impossible. It’s most desirable. Achieving this goal via measures outlined above is by no means naïve since it’s achievable – only if labor officials can muster ample political will and competence.

But sadly, with legal protection for OFWs still sorely inadequate in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Middle East, it won’t come as a surprise if Pinoys in general get shocked again and again by fresh cases of brutal rapes, abuses or deaths of hapless OFWs with their treatment as virtual “modern-day” slaves. The author is a journalist working in Hong Kong

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