‘Close-open’ stance on Middle East deployments raises questions not answers

Published December 6, 2021, 12:05 AM

by Jun Concepcion


The Philippine government can’t seem to make up its mind on how best to use temporary bans on deployments of Filipino workers to Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Middle East.

On Dec. 2, Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello ordered  new OFW deployments to Saudi Arabia suspended after the government received reports that a retired Saudi military general still managed  to hire OFWs even after he was deemed a blacklisted employer following complaints of physical abuses of Filipino women who previously worked in his household.

The temporary deployment ban was also prompted by retired Saudi General Ayed Thawah Al Jeaid’s initial refusal to release two distressed Filipino domestics on Sept. 27.The Philippine Overseas Labor Office in Riyadh earlier reported that Al Jeaid previously employed 16 Filipino helpers who complained about non-payment of their salaries and physical abuses.

On July 6, President Rodrigo Duterte threatened to ban OFW deployments to Saudi Arabia following two cases of sexual abuse of two Filipino women by their employers. One of the victims, “Michelle,” was raped by her first employer, a Saudi policeman, and raped again by her subsequent Saudi employer. She was two months pregnant when she came home in June. The other rape victim, “Rose,” also came home in the same month.

In May this year, the Labor Department briefly suspended deployments to Saudi Arabia but for just two days following complaints by OFWs that they were made to pay for COVID-19 tests and quarantine upon arrival to that country. Saudi authorities quickly backed down.

An OFW rights advocate with two female cousins who died one after the other in the Middle East said temporary deployment bans are far from sufficient. The government should instead impose a total ban on deployments of Filipino women to the region and redirect deployments to other parts of the world which provide better work conditions. He failed, however, to take into account the massive political backlash and pushback that a total ban will elicit from millions rendered jobless by COVID-19 and who are very anxious to take on higher-paying jobs abroad.

While temporary deployment bans are readily accessible to the government, there appears to be no end in sight to the continuing litany of abuses of Filipino women in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Middle East. This is principally because of labor officials’ short sightedness and lack of foresight as they are apparently content with securing incremental — not substantive, deep and meaningful — improvements in work conditions of OFWs in the region.

A case in point is the principal objective of the latest deployment ban to Saudi Arabia. The measure, according to labor officials, aims mainly to plug a technical loophole in the government’s deployment guidelines, highlighted by the fact that the ex-Saudi general managed to hire additional OFWs even after he was blacklisted and barred from employing any more Filipinos.

Labor officials should address the following questions and provide answers in no uncertain terms: Why go for palliatives when finding solutions to the roots of the abuse problems is more paramount? Why not attack the decades-old Kafala system in the Middle East, cited by the International Labor Organization and other institutions as the primary culprit in the harsh treatment of imported workers in the Middle East? Since it will amount to political suicide to attack frontally the Kafala system, a scheme originally intended to monitor mobility of foreign workers, are there non-confrontational and “creative” ways to curb drastically its “slavery” component?

The following are worth considering by senior labor officials:

1) The government should stand pat for sustained periods on any deployment ban that it imposes, like the current one on Saudi Arabia, until the Philippines obtains substantial concessions in the form of sweeping improvements in work conditions of OFWs.

2) Impunity of locals should be addressed resolutely. The government should press host countries, like Saudi Arabia, to provide OFWs with equal protection as locals under the host government’s criminal and labor laws. If this is achieved, errant employers will be seriously deterred from raping, maiming and even killing their domestics if they will face the full brunt of local laws even if victims are foreign workers.  

3) Press host governments to show concrete proof of successful prosecution and punishment of perpetrators of heinous crimes on OFWs. All too often, perpetrators of the most horrific abuses committed on Filipino women go unpunished. This is indicated by the deplorable lack of published information on the prosecution and punishment of perpetrators of atrocities inflicted on Filipino women.

4) Labor officials should display more firmness and resolve when negotiating with their Middle Eastern counterparts. They should bear in mind that if not the Middle East, countries in the Asia Pacific, Central Asia, Europe and even South America can serve as alternative and even better work destinations for Filipino women.

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