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Decertify Saudi as Destination for Domestic Workers, says COWA Missionís Final Report
By: Office of Hon. WALDEN F. BELLO
The Department of Foreign Affairs is tasked by the Republic Act 20010, the newly amended Overseas Workers’ Law to certify if a receiving country’s laws and practices accords adequate respect for and protection for workers’ rights. If a country is decertified for a certain class of workers, then the Philippine Overseas Workers’ Administration (POEA) will have to freeze the deployment of those workers to that country until such time as adequate legal and social safeguards are instituted.
The key section of the report is a detailed documentation of the different kinds of abuse and exploitative acts that are visited on Filipino domestics, including being hit with hot irons, being kept under lock and key, workdays lasting 20-22 hours, deprivation of food, non-payment of wages, and being peddled from one employer to another by recruitment agencies. Much of the export of domestic labor to the Kingdom, alleges the report, is human trafficking by recruitment agencies in the Philippines and their counterparts in Saudi.
Rape: the Constant Specter
“Rape is a constant specter,” the authors write. The report estimates that up to 15 to 20 per cent of those in the shelters being maintained by the Philippine government are rape victims. Detailed accounts of four well-documented rape cases are included in the report, including that of Lorena (not her real name) who was repeatedly raped by her employer, a lieutenant commander of the Saudi Royal Navy based at the strategic port of Jubail on the Persian Gulf.
Discussing the cause of the prevalence of rape and sexual abuse, the authors suggested that the “strict sexual segregation must create tremendous pent-up sexual pressure, so when the opportunity for sexual satisfaction appears, it explodes. “ Sexual abuse was also possibly ”an extension of the strict subordination to males and institutionalized repression of Saudi women.”
“Whatever the causes,” continued the report, “Saudi society is suffused with latent sexual violence, much more so than most other societies. While bringing domestic workers under the coverage of Saudi labor law would help, this is not sufficient protection. Owing to longstanding cultural practices, Saudi Arabia will remain a dangerous place for Filipino domestic workers.”
The report is comprehensive. Other sections include a discussion of the situation of Filipinos in Saudi prisons; an assessment of the performance of Embassy officials in the delivery of services, from repatriation to rescue of Filipinas in distress; the Filipino community’s reception of various government programs; the growing problem of undocumented children born of Filipino or mixed parents, problems in remitting money to the Philippines; and a detailed discussion of Philippine and Saudi labor laws.
Assessment of Philippine Officials
On the performance of Philippine officials, the report identified and discussed a number of shortcomings. However, it stated “Our impression of most of the foreign service and labor personnel we interacted with during the trip is that they were solid professionals doing their best in a difficult situation.” Special mention is made of the rescue missions conducted by foreign service and labor personnel: “With limited personnel and resources, these teams have liberated scores of domestic workers from oppressive situations. Given the vast distances of Saudi Arabia, these teams often have to travel hundreds of kilometers to find and free domestic workers in distress.”
The issue of undocumented children of Filipino or mixed parentage is said to be a “time bomb.” Now possibly numbering as high as 3000, lacking iqamas or residence certificates, the children not only cannot be repatriated to the Philippines; they face a life of hardship as legal non-entities in Saudi Arabia.
The Saudi government, the authors note, “is said to be cognizant of the problem of undocumented children. However, it is bereft of initiatives to deal with them, leaving the Philippine government with the opportunity to present solutions, including possibly a bilateral agreement that would legalize their status in Saudi Arabia and allow them easy repatriation to the Philippines.”
Not Meant to Demonize Saudis
Asked why the language of the report is direct and forthright and lacks diplomacy, Bello said, “We have in our system of government a separation of powers. It is the role of Congress to tell the truth and we leave it to the executive to practice diplomacy.” He added, “Besides it is high time we told the Saudis the unvarnished truth about the terrible conditions of existence of our domestic workers in their country.”
The report disclaims any intent to demonize Saudis: “Reading these accounts might give the impression that all Saudi households are pockets of hell. In fact, there are instances where domestics find Saudis that treat them with dignity…What we wish to underline is the fact that, despite the good intentions and behavior of some Saudis, rape and physical abuse occur much too frequently in Saudi households, and domestic workers are often defenseless, prompting many of them to run away from their employers.”
The report ends up making the following 12 recommendations:
“1. Decertify Saudi Arabia as a country fit to receive domestic workers in accordance with Section 3 of Republic Act 10022, which states that “the Department of Foreign Affairs, through its foreign posts, shall issue a certification to the POEA, specifying therein the pertinent provisions of the receiving country’s labor/social law, or the convention/declaration/resolution or the bilateral agreement/arrangement which protect the rights of migrant workers.”
2. Urgently press the Saudi government to negotiate a bilateral labor agreement with the Philippine government that would secure respect and iron-clad protection for the rights of all classes of Filipino overseas workers. This recommendation of the earlier mission to Saudi Arabia consisting of Reps. Rufus Rodriguez, Luz Ilagan, and Carlos Padilla (Nov 2009) is one that our mission strongly reiterates.
3.Coordinate with other labor-sending countries such as Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and India to gain leverage vis-a-vis Saudi Arabia in order to secure respect for overseas workers’ rights.
4. Upgrade the Pre-departure Orientation Seminars (PDOS) to familiarize OFWs headed to Saudi about the conditions—both good and bad—they are likely to face in that country.
5. Urge members of Congress to work with LGUs in launching information campaigns to dissuade people from going to Saudi to engage in domestic work and related occupations such as “washers” and “beauticians.”
6. Prosecute recruitment agencies that have a record of deploying domestic workers to households and establishments that maltreat workers.
7. Prosecute recruitment agencies that are party to substitute contracting and similar activities under the Anti-Trafficking Act.
8. Ensure that the budget for Assistance to Nationals and the Legal Assistance Fund is not reduced and, if possible, increased.
9. Increase efforts to secure the release of death row victims as well as other nationals currently detained in Saudi jails on various charges.
10. Pressure the Saudi government to agree to a bilateral agreement that would normalize the situation of children born of Filipino or mixed parents in Saudi Arabia and facilitate their repatriation to the Philippines.”
11. Increase the personnel complement of the Embassy, Consular, and POLO staffs to reduce overwork and meet growing demands.
12. Conduct an aggressive information campaign among OFWs in Saudi Arabia regarding the benefits they can get from different government welfare programs such as Pag-IBIG and Philhealth.
(For electronic copies of the full report, pls contact Sabrina Gacad at Sabrina.Gacad@yahoo.com)