by Kay S. Abaño
Saudi Arabia. http://www.pinoy-ofw.com
On 8 January 2011, the Lower House Committee on Overseas Workers’ Affairs (COWA) began its 5-day fact-finding mission to assess the situation of Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) in Saudi Arabia. The team, led by Walden Bello of Akbayan and Chairman of the COWA, met with different Saudi-based OFWs in Philippine government-run shelters in various cities throughout the kingdom who were more than willing to share their stories of distress.
One of these OFWs was Lorena (not her real name), who was raped by her employer within the first week of her arrival. She was scared and felt powerless as she knew nobody in the country. She was raped three more times after that, which she said she just had to bear in order to survive. While waiting for her employers in a shopping mall one day, she met and begged some Filipino nurses for help, who then gave her a SIM card and some load after hearing about her situation. This was probably what allowed her to have contact with other Filipinos living in the area, and to eventually get help from the Philippine Overseas Labor Office (POLO) when the abuses became just too much to bear, and when her life was put in danger.
Countless other violations of the most basic human rights are also committed by employers to their workers. One example is being deprived of proper meals – Lorena was only given a piece of bread to eat at mealtime and had to scrape off her employers’ leftovers for more food. Her employer also refused to take her to the hospital once when she fell and cut herself badly because it was too expensive to do so.
However, sexual abuse is still the biggest problem faced by Filipinos in this country. “Rape is common,” according to another Filipina called Fatimah (also not her real name), who had been gang-raped by six Saudi teenage boys. And if a worker is ever “borrowed” by her employer’s relatives, that apparently gives the man of the house the right to rape her as well.
Lorena’s and Fatimah’s cases, along with many other cases of raped women show how much sexual abuse goes on just beneath the veil of this very conservative society. One member of the House team attributes it to the strict sexual segregation which must create an incredible amount of sexual repression. Another believes it is an extension of the institutionalized subordination of women in Saudi society. By the end of the mission, the members of the House team were “shocked to speechlessness,” then resulting in the consensus that every effort must be made to prevent Filipinas from going to work in Saudi Arabia.
COWA Petition : Decertify Saudi Arabia
On 9 February 2011, one month after their mission to Saudi Arabia, the Lower House Committee on Overseas Workers’ Affairs (COWA) released the full report of the fact-finding mission and primarily recommended the decertification of Saudi Arabia as a country fit to receive domestic workers. This means a temporary suspension of deployment of Filipina household service workers to the Kingdom.
“Our kababayan leave the country with the promise of a better life for themselves and their families, unfortunately they are confronted with their worst nightmare in Saudi Arabia,” Akbayan Representative Walden Bello, chairperson of the Committee, said. And to help put an end to what Bello also called “a situation of modern-day slavery,” the Lower House committee has released a report with these 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. .
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 parentage 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.
“What we have before us is a cycle of abuse, and COWA is committed to work to end it,” Bello concluded.
The End of a Cycle ?
Are overseas Filipina workers finally about to see the end to this nightmare? Or is necessity going to continue taking priority over their own dignity and safety? The road seems to be long and the needs still too abundant to ignore. And even with such horrible stories from others like them, a lot of Filipino women are still sure to leave their families and brave the world of domestic service abroad. A government committee report is not going to change anything overnight, much less prevent them from simply trying to survive or give their families a better life. No, perhaps this is not the end.
But, it is definitely the beginning. What we have seen here is the small but sure and determined step of the committee to give what is long overdue to these workers– the right to come out of the shadows and be seen, the right to speak and make known their ordeals, and the right to cry out and be felt by the people who should have listened to them a long time ago.
2- AKBAYAN Press Release : 9 February 2011