Countries in the Middle East have become more open and willing to listen to the Philippines as far as labor conditions of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) is concerned, a foreign affairs executive said.
Through the years, issues concerning labor systems reform transitioned from being the elephant in the room to something that is openly discussed and worked on, Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) Undersecretary Sarah Lou Arriola said.
In a press briefing following the DFA’s meeting with their counterparts from Bahrain and Saudi Arabia at the sidelines of International Migration Review Forum (IMRF) 2022 held at the United Nations (UN) Headquarters in New York, Arriola discussed the takeaways from the “surreal” forum she and Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodor Locsin Jr. had attended.
“Ang takeaways kasi diyan…Alam ba n’yo nung 2016, wala talagang kahit sino man sa United Nations ang nagme-mention ng Kafala at labor reform (The takeaways were… Did you know that in 2016, no one from the United Nations dared to mention Kafala and labor reform),” she said.
Kafala system is a system that regulates migrant laborers in Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member states and neighboring countries like Bahrain, Kuwait, Lebanon, Qatar, Oman, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates (UAE).
“It was such a taboo word, people, diplomats, countries of origin were really afraid of offending the Arabs and then in 2017, when the negotiations begun, and in 2018, when Joana Demafelis died—and I hope we don’t forget her—that was when President Duterte said: the Filipinos are no slave to anyone anywhere and everywhere and we started the biggest labor reform campaign in reforming the Kafala system,” Arriola said.
The undersecretary for migrant workers said the reform has gone a long way from 2018 to 2022. In 2018, she said, the Philippines was only working with Bahrain to implement the reforms “but now we already have Saudi Arabia” which is the biggest country in the GCC and has about 10 million migrant workers.
“It’s very important na nagsusubok ,e (that they are trying). There’s already the willingness on the part of these countries to reform .They are not totally there yet but they need the support of the countries of origin and also, we need to have an open dialogue, kasi hindi naman pwedeng palagi na lang tayong nag-aaway (we should not resort to disputes). Palagi na lang tayong (We always), we threaten each other because never before have we ever seen the openness of these countries to listen to us, to open their doors, to build a bridge and because they want to do better,” Arriola said.
The undersecretary further said that this openness between the countries does not only benefit OFWs but even other migrant workers in the Middle East.
Arriola said the IMRF 2022 is such a surreal summit having to see Saudi Arabia as among the participants. This, she said, signifies hope that a better labor system is ensured in the coming years.
“When I saw that Saudi Arabia was there. It’s so surreal, aakala mo hindi talaga mangyayari (you’d have thought it would never happen). Ako nga (Even me) at the height of it, I thought it will never happen in my lifetime but it did and we are hoping years from now, total na yung reform na parang magiging favorite mo na siya as a country of destination na lesser na yung problems natin (the reform will be totally implemented and it will be a favorite country of destination with lesser problems),” she said.
Abuses on migrant workers
Arriola also disclosed that from the time she held office at the Migrant Workers’ Affairs Office in 2017, there has been a “significant decrease” in abuses on Filipino migrant workers.
“Compared to the time na dumating ako nung (I came in) 2017, significant din yung pagbaba saka significant na bukas yung mga pinto (there has been a significant decrease and the opening of doors is also significant),” she said.
“You can knock on doors now, you get to talk to their undersecretaries, they listen to you and ang palagi nilang sinasabi sa atin (and what they always tell us), ‘if you have a problem, tell us, mapag-uusapan ‘to (we can talk about this).’ Hindi kailangan magkagulo tayo. Na nung unang panahon hindi naman ganun, e (We don’t need to be in a mess. Which was not there in the past),” she added.
The DFA executive said amid the openness, they still criticize other countries and regions and call them out if a problem arises concerning OFWs.
In all these circumstances, the host countries always convey willingness to listen, Arriola said.
“We still criticize, we still tell them this is the problema, this is what’s lacking, this is our expectation but now, they are so open and they have this willingness to listen,” she said.
“Saan ka ba nakakita na you criticize a system in a certain region, hindi na tayo inaaway (Where can you see a certain region that when we criticize their system, they no longer fight us), and they’re open, and they have side events with us. This is good faith, they are showing that we are willing to reform and we are willing to listen to you and we are willing to take this to the next step,” she added.
The IMRF 2022 dubbed “Labor Mobility and Human Rights: Improving Labor Migration Governance for Migrant Workers in the Middle East” aims to strengthen the ties of the Philippines with Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, particularly in joint efforts to improve the labor migration governance in Middle East and the continuous cooperation towards implementing the objectives of the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration or the Global Compact for Migration (GCM).