Fact-Finding Mission to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

Some of the members from the Committee on Overseas Workers Affairs (COWA), including DIWA Party-list Representative Emmeline Y. Aglipay went on a 5-day fact-finding mission to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia last January 8-13, 2011 in order to personally look into the situation of our Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) in the Kingdom.

There are said to be over 1.1 million Filipinos in Saudi Arabia, and the importance of the Kingdom to the Philippine economy can never be emphasized enough. About US$7.9 billion of the total of US$17.1 billion yearly remitted to the Philippines in 2010 was said to have come from workers in Saudi Arabia. Yet Saudi Arabia also features regularly in the world press as a backward state, where women are legally and by custom subordinated to men and men and women are rigidly segregated. In addition, there are regular reports of rampant rape and physical abuse of domestic workers in Saudi.

The delegation was led by the Chairperson of the COWA, Rep. Walden Bello and also included Rep. Carmen Zamora-Apsay and Rep. Cresente Paez given the latter’s expertise in remittances and other financial matters relevant to OFWs. The mission left for Saudi Arabia in the evening of January 8 and spent the next five days in the Kingdom. The itinerary of the team was arranged by the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), the Philippine Embassy in Riyadh, the Philippine Consulate General in Jeddah, and the Philippine Overseas Labor Offices (POLOs) in these cities.

In coming to the Kingdom, the mission had the following specific objectives:

a) to familiarize the COWA with the conditions facing Filipino OFWs in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which may be described as the frontline state for the deployment of OFWs, where there have been numerous reports of abuses of Filipino workers, particularly female domestic workers;

b) to assess the performance of Philippine government agencies in responding to the needs of OFWs in the country;

c) to find out the response of KSA-based OFWs to the mandatory insurance required by the amended Overseas Workers’ Act and to selected government programs that are supposed to benefit OFWs; and

d) to investigate the status of Filipinos detained in Saudi jails, particularly those under the death penalty, with a view to securing their release or mitigating their sentences.

The delegation visited three key cities, Riyadh, Jeddah, and Al Khobar from January 9 to Jan 13. A briefing was conducted by the officials of the Philippine Embassy, Consulate General, and the POLO. Also, in the areas that were visited by the delegation, dialogues were conducted with distressed female OFWs in shelters operated by the Philippine government, also known as Filipino Workers’ Resource Centers (FWRCs). There were also mass meetings conducted with Filipinos in some areas.

Upon its return to the Philippines, the mission began work on a Committee Report, which was finished on Feb. 7, 2011. Briefly, the said report contains information on the following issues:
(a) the differing situations of professionals and skilled workers and domestic workers in Saudi Arabia; and more importantly, how many domestic workers are cast into very oppressive conditions of work, and where physical abuse and rape are rampant;

(b) the delegation’s views on the status of Filipinos on death row, OFWs detained for “immorality” and other offenses, legal services offered by the Philippine Embassy and Consulate General, and the Embassy and DFA’s investigative work on the suspicious deaths of a number of Filipinos;

(c) an assessment of the performance of Embassy and POLO personnel on a number of activities ranging from repatriation of OFWs to rescuing Filipinas in distress;

(d) the reception by the Filipino community of selected Philippine government programs, the reactions of the communities in Riyadh, Jeddah, and Al Khobar to the mandatory insurance provision of Republic Act No. 10022 and how the costs might weigh more than its benefits, making its possible amendment something to consider seriously;

(e) the problem of undocumented children in Saudi, who are estimated at this point to number from 2,000 to 3,000;

(f) the difficulties OFWs face in remitting money to the Philippines; and

(g) the team’s recommendations, foremost of which is the decertification of Saudi Arabia as a destination for Filipino domestic workers.

(link to full report)

During their stay in Saudi, Rep. Aglipay felt overwhelmed and saddened when she discovered and witnessed for herself the truth about the conditions of our OFWs in the Kingdom. “We must take immediate action in order to address the depressing situation of Filipino workers in the country, especially the most numerous and vulnerable – those working as domestic workers in households,” Rep. Aglipay said. “As a legislator who represents the concerns of the labor sector and the workers, and most importantly as a woman, I feel deeply disturbed by the situation in Saudi. I will work to lobby for changes not only with regard to laws, but also with the various government offices such as the DFA, the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration and the POEA,” she added.

The experience moved Rep. Aglipay to deliver a privilege speech on their fact-finding mission to Saudi. In her privilege speech, Rep. Aglipay shared with the members of Congress the bleak situation of our OFWs in the Kingdom, supported the recommendations of the COWA, and called on her fellow legislators and Filipinos to help address the very pressing concerns of our OFWs in Saudi. She emphasized the need to implement Section 3 of Republic Act No. 10022 that would help protect the rights of our OFWs.

“Sa aking palagay, kinakailangan nang ipatupad ang Section 3 ng RA 10022, na nagsasaad na papahintulutan lang ang deployment ng overseas Filipino workers sa mga bansang pumuprotekta sa mga karapatan ng mga Pilipinong manggagawa. Nakasaad sa batas na itinuturing bilang isang garantiya na ang receiving country ay promoprotekta sa karapatan ng mga OFW kung mayroon ang alin sa mga ito:

Una, kung mayroong nang mga umiiral at ipinapatupad na labor at social laws sa receiving country na prumoprotekta sa karapatan ng mga manggagawa, kasama na ang mga migranteng manggagawa; o

Pangalawa, kung ang receiving country ay signatory o nag-ratify sa mga multi-lateral na kumbensyon, deklarasyon or resolusyon na patungkol sa pag-proprotekta sa mga manggagawa, kasama na ang mga migranteng manggagawa; o

Pangatlo, kung mayroong isang bilateral na kasunduan o kaayusan ang receiving country at ang Pilipinas para sa pag-proprotekta ng karapatan ng OFWs.

Kinakailangang gumagawa ng mga kongkreto at positibong hakbang ang receiving country upang protektahan ang karapatan ng mga migranteng manggagawa para sa pagsulong ng mga garantiyang nabanggit.

Kung walang malinaw na batayang tumutupad sa kahit isa sa mga garantiyang nabanggit sa bansang pupuntahan ng migranteng Pilipino, hindi maaring mag-issue ng deployment permit ang POEA sa bansang iyon.”

After this experience, members of the delegation had several recommendations to the COWA and to the Philippine government. These are:

1. to decertify Saudi Arabia as a country fit to receive domestic workers in accordance with Section 3 of Republic Act No. 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. to 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 the mission strongly reiterates;
3. to coordinate with other labor-sending countries such as Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and India to gain leverage vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia in order to secure respect for overseas workers’ rights;

4. to improve the Pre-departure Orientation Seminars (PDOS) in order to familiarize OFWs headed to Saudi about the conditions—both good and bad—they are likely to face in that country;
5. to urge members of Congress to work with Local Government Units in launching information dissemination campaigns to dissuade people from going to Saudi to engage in domestic work and related occupations such as “washers” and “beauticians;”
6. to prosecute recruitment agencies that have a record of deploying domestic workers to households and establishments that maltreat workers;
7. to prosecute recruitment agencies that are parties to substitute contracting and similar activities under the Anti-Human Trafficking Act;
8. to ensure that the budget for Assistance to Nationals and the Legal Assistance Fund is not reduced and, if possible, increased;
9. to increase efforts to secure the release of death row victims as well as other nationals currently detained in Saudi jails on various charges;
10. to increase the personnel complement of the Embassy, Consular, and POLO staffs to reduce overwork and meet growing demands; and
11. to conduct an aggressive information campaign among OFWs in Saudi Arabia regarding the benefits they can get from different government welfare programs such as those provided by Pag-IBIG and Philhealth.