Rule of law and pitiful plight of Filipino maids overseas

Published July 12, 2021, 12:10 AM

by Jun Concepcion

OFW Forum

Jun Concepcion

Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III announced on July 6 the temporary suspension of new workers to Saudi Arabia following recent sexual abuses of two Filipino women in that country. They came home last month, with “Michelle” two months pregnant with the child of one of her two Saudi rapists. More likely than not, she will be emotionally scarred more in the long term than her fellow victim as her child will haunt and remind her in the years to come of the traumatic rape that she suffered in Saudi Arabia.

Michelle worked one after the other for two Saudi employers, both of whom raped her, probably disabling her from pinpointing which of the two culprits fathered the child that she’s now bearing.

Expressing his outrage, Bello said: “If we don’t get justice for our OFWs, the president may again consider declaring a ban to Saudi Arabia.” Beyond mere expression of outrage, hardly anything can be expected in Michelle’s bid for justice.

In recent years, there have been no media reports about perpetrators of rapes, serious physical abuses and killings of Filipino women in the Middle East being made accountable and getting prosecuted for their crimes. Simply put, the rule of law in different countries across the Middle East historically does not protect and apply to foreign workers, especially if they belong to a very low strata in society, like domestic helpers, who are routinely “sold” from one employer to the other under the decades-old Kafala scheme that remains prevalent in the region. Victims’ pleas for justice can therefore be likened to feeble voices in the wilderness.

More likely than not, Michelle will simply be added – just like a faceless statistic – to the ever growing list of Filipino women brutalized in the Middle East who are conveniently forgotten over time by labor officials more engrossed in overseeing the country’s continuing manpower exports to feed the economy’s insatiable hunger for more foreign currencies.

In sharp contrast to the Middle East, the rule of law in Asia provides ample protection to imported workers comparable, if not equal, to that of local citizens. Recent cases in point are a Singaporean employer of Indian descent who was jailed for 30 years over the killing and starvation of her young Myanmar domestic helper.

In Hong Kong, a male employer raped her 29-year-old Indonesian helper in February this year and he was arraigned in court in May to be made accountable for his crime.

Are there prospects in the foreseeable future of Filipino women enjoying the rule of local law across the Middle East? Sadly, hardly, if at all. From various indications, there aren’t much reasons to be hopeful. In a surprising move, President Duterte reportedly wrote to the King of Saudi Arabia in June, asking for labor reform initiatives and the removal of the sponsorship or Kafala system. Sadly, no signs have since emerged that the government will press further this isolated initiative.

With the Kafala employer-foreign worker sponsorship system put in place in the 1950s, it is more than likely than not that resistance to any change to the scheme will be very stiff. The government will therefore need to employ an entirely different tack than simply asking for amendments to the Kafala scheme.

What will it really take for a labor exporting country, specifically the Philippines, to obtain more favorable treatment of its workers in Saudi Arabia and in other countries in the Middle East? The current temporary suspension of deployment of more workers to that country, especially domestic helpers, is certainly a good start. But if it softens its stance, just like what it did in its brief deployment suspension in Kuwait over the horrific killing of a Filipino maid, any prospect of gains easily goes down the drain.

If work conditions for Filipino women in Saudi Arabia are to improve, the government should stand pat on the deployment ban to that country until and unless Filipino workers there, especially women, enjoy the full protection of the country’s law and criminal justice system.

Unless this firm position is maintained, rapes and other atrocities on Filipino women, like those inflicted on Michelle, are likely to be repeated with impunity again and again in the coming months and years.  While Saudi Arabia can push back and shut its doors on the entry of additional Filipino workers, the government should not fear adverse consequences. If not Saudi Arabia, other countries in the Middle East, Asia and elsewhere across the world can always provide employment opportunities to Filipinos bold enough to work overseas.

If Filipino women are treated shabbily again and again in Saudi Arabia or elsewhere in the Middle East, the government has and should fulfill its obligation to find lasting and effective solutions to resolve the problem by conducting more intensive and diligent research and forging the necessary labor agreements that will secure and guarantee work conditions that won’t put Filipino women in harm’s way. Failure to do this will simply reflect incompetence and dereliction of duty of the country’s senior labor officials.  There is absolutely no reason and justification for labor officials not to ensure that Filipino women are not unduly exposed to harm’s way thousands of miles away from their loved ones in dire circumstances that can also make it extremely difficult for government agencies, notably POEA and OWWA, to rescue and send them home.

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