Grandstanding, band-aid solutions, damage-control for companies and recruitment agencies: Assessment of PH govt’s response to plight of stranded OFWs in Saudi crisis  

Stranded OFWs in Saudi still awaiting repatriation from the Philippine government.

Prepared by Migrante International, December 13, 2016

Last July, Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) Sec. Silvestre Bello III declared that the Duterte government will resolve the issue of stranded OFWs (overseas Filipino workers) in Saudi Arabia by yearend. December has come, we are well on our way to usher in the new year, and what has the government done so far in response to their plight?

The economy of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) is presently beset with a severe oil price meltdown. Crude oil that sold for over $100 per barrel in 2014 was cut down to half the price by the end of 2015. The price decline strongly influenced KSA’s economy since oil sales account for about 80% of its revenues. It prompted the Saudi government to cut spending, delay projects and sell bonds. This resulted in financial instability of government contractors which employs a large numbers of migrant workers.  Its impact also extended to other branches of the local economy, including public utilities and social services.

The effect of the crisis on OFWs became evident when tens of thousands became stranded in numerous company accommodations in various regions of KSA by 2015. The number of OFWs affected by non-payment of salaries, withholding of benefits,  massive retrenchment and contract violations continued to increase as the oil crisis worsened. The Rapid Response Team to KSA dispatched by the previous Aquino administration only estimated some 11,000 OFWs affected in companies such as Saudi Oger Ltd, Saudi Bin Laden Group (SBG) and Mohammad Al Mojil Grooup (MMG). Migrante, however, projected that at least 50,000 OFWs, to include those employed by smaller companies and sub-contractors, will be affected Kingdom-wide by March of 2016 – and the figure will continue to rise if the government continues to turn a blind eye.

Acknowledging the crisis, then newly-elected President Rodrigo Duterte gave “marching orders” to Sec. Bello to conduct a visit to Saudi Arabia to immediately assess the situation and repatriate the stranded OFWs via chartered flights. In response, the government launched an inter-agency project dubbed, “Operation Bring Them Home”, which conducted two “humanitarian relief missions” to Saudi Arabia in August-September and October-November. The Operation was jointly conducted by the DOLE, Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), Department of Social Work and Development (DSWD), Department of Health (DOH) the Public Attorney’s Office (PAO) and TESDA (Technical Education and Skills Development Authority).

Prior to the Operation and Sec. Bello’s first trip to Saudi Arabia, Migrante submitted to the government a briefer that summarized the plight, demands and urgent government action needed by the stranded OFWs. Below is a summary of the OFWs’ demands:

  • Negotiate with employers for the payment of salaries and benefits, and issuance of exit visas.
  • Emergency mass repatriation for stranded OFWs. Government to shoulder immigration penalties and other costs related to repatriation.
  • Provide legal assistance and other support (free translations fees, transportation expenses) for distressed OFWs who filed labor cases against their companies, and facilitate the provision of subsistence allowances through the OFW’s recruitment agencies.
  • Ban the deployment workers to bankrupt and crisis-ridden companies.
  • Emergency financial assistance to returned OFWs and families of distressed OFWs.
  • Speedy resolution of cases of repatriated OFWs lodged at the POEA and NLRC.
  • Comprehensive reintegration program and decent-paying jobs for returning OFWs.

 In a press conference in Malacanang last November 22, Sec. Bello announced that “only 2,000 OFWs remain to be repatriated in Saudi Arabia”. In the same breath, Sec. Bello said that they “have succeeded in bringing back 3,000 OFWs while the rest have managed to find good-paying jobs in other companies”. This statement is very problematic.

Firstly, the government merely accounts for some 5,000 affected OFWs, still a far cry from the 11,000 it vowed to repatriate early on – and still yet a small percent of the actual number of affected OFWs outside of the three big companies, Saudi Oger Ltd, Saudi Billadin Group (SBG) and Mohammad Al Mojil Group (MMG).

Sec. Bello, in the same press conference, announced that the OFWs opting to transfer to other companies “made it easier for us (government)”, but he also admitted that the OFWs have not yet been paid their withheld wages and necessary money claims.

These statements are not only contradictory but problematic at best. It now appears that the Sec. Bello deems the Saudi crisis fait accompli, problem-solved, and therefore business-as-usual between the Philippine government and its biggest labor importer. This is wishful thinking on the part of the Philippine government and downright deceiving.

On one hand, while efforts of relief and on-site assistance by the DSWD should be lauded, these are short-term and  band-aid solutions that do nothing to address the major issues of emergency repatriation, labor issues and comprehensive reintegration for affected OFWs and their families.

Government efforts have been fragmented thus far, with various agencies involved, particularly the DOLE and DFA, “one-upping” each other in terms of who plays a command role in the Operation. Migrante’s sources in the DFA claim that after the initial and only press conference, where Sec. Bello and DFA’s Perfecto Yasay publicly flanked Pres. Duterte as he welcomed a handful of repatriated OFWs from Saudi, the former had been reluctant to conduct a follow-up humanitarian mission after the first one in July.

Thus begging the question: Was the DOLE’s objective in the Saudi mission not really for the main purpose of repatriating stranded OFWs but conducting damage control for the beleaguered Saudi companies and local recruitment agencies through the facilitation of job transfers?

If so, the promise to “end the stranded crisis” by yearend has been deceiving and bound to fail from the start. Job transfers of crisis-ridden OFWs have been the thrust of the previous governments – as in the case of the MMG workers who initially called for emergency mass repatriation in 2014, were convinced by the PH government to be transferred to other companies, only to enlist yet again for repatration in 2015 after the company they transferred too was also affected by the Saudi crisis.

If Sec. Bello worked mainly to facilitate job transfers, then he only succeeded in buying time for and “rescuing” the companies and local private recruitment agencies instead of the affected OFWs. This is unsurprisingly in line with the “win-win” solution and other deceiving, pro-capitalist and anti-labor policies that the DOLE has been advocating thus far.

Meanwhile, the oil crisis in Saudi continues to worsen. OFWs, those who Sec. Bello said “opted” to stay on, have not become impervious to the crisis just because they were transferred to different companies. The crisis is also now affecting not only OFWs in industrial and construction sites but those in the service and health sectors as well.

The Saudi crisis is far from over. What the present administration should ultimalety strive to do as a comprehensive response to the crisis is to decisively deviate from its labor export policy and instead focus on creating decent and sustainable local jobs to end the cycle of forced migration. ###