Katas ng Saudi OFWs blame ‘unified contract’, Saudi sponsorship system for rising rights violations

Filipino victims of illegal recruitment, contract substitution, labor maltreatment, modern-day slavery and government neglect in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia today gave another meaning to the popular moniker “katas ng Saudi”.

Kung dati-rati’y bagong pampasaherong jeepney, mga alahas, bahay at lupa ang pakahulugan ng ‘katas ng Saudi’, ngayon, nangangahulugan na ito ng pawis at dugo ng ating mga OFW,” said Garry Martinez, Migrante International chairperson.

In a press conference held at the Migrante International Home Office in Quezon City, returned OFWs and relatives of the Saudi 200+ and family members of distressed OFWs in Saudi called on the Philippine government to address their demands. All blamed the Philippine government for entering into one-sided, abusive and unconstitutional labor deployment policies with Saudi companies and for tolerating Saudi laws and directives that explicitly violate Philippine migrant labor laws.

Martinez cited the case of the Saudi 200+, OFWs from at least six (6) different companies in Saudi who simultaneously and consecutively staged “stop-work protests” and strikes since July against their companies and employers for various labor right violations.  Since holding their workers’ strikes, the Saudi 200+ has been awaiting repatriation by the Philippine government. Some have resorted to scavenging for food, while others were taken in by Filipino communities in and around Riyadh as the Philippine embassy and POLO-OWWA in Saudi have consistently refused to provide them food, shelter and assistance.

“The case of the Saudi 200+ is one clear proof of the Philippine government’s flawed labor policy in Saudi. These are not isolated cases. It is not mere coincidence that they have all separately and almost at the same time decided to launch protests against their companies,” Martinez said.

 Unified contract

Martinez blamed the continuous implementation of the PH-Saudi Unified Contract as grounds for the unending and increasing number of victims of labor rights violations in Saudi.

The PH-Saudi Unified Contract is an agreement between the Saudi National Recruitment Committee (SANARCOM) and the Overseas Placement Association of the Philippines (OPAP), private associations of recruitment agencies in Saudi and the Philippines. The Unified Contract was first floated in 1990s, much to the dismay of OFWs and recruitment agencies alike. Despite protests and a temporary suspension, the Unified Contract took full effect in 2003, under former Labor Secretary Patricia Sto. Tomas’ supervision.

Since then, the DOLE had consistently denied the existence of such a contract. Under the unified contract, contract substitution and other contract violations by counterpart agencies and companies in Saudi were legitimized. “Ibig sabihin, kahit na compliant sa POEA terms ang kontratang pinirmahan dito ng OFW, malayang baguhin ito ng mga kumpanya o ahensya sa Saudi ayon sa nakasaad sa unified contract,” Martinez said.

Recently, Labor Sec. Rosalinda Baldoz, as a result of independent fact-finding investigations in Saudi, admitted that indeed a unified contract is in place but denied that the DOLE is party to it and promised to “review” it. Since then, however, details of the contract have remained secret and no results of the so-called “review” have been made public.

“In the meantime, some 800 to 900 OFWs are being deployed to Saudi daily, while no direct intervention is being made by the DOLE, the DFA or the Philippine government to stop blatant labor rights violations. It is very obvious that our government is turning a blind eye against violations so as not to jeopardize the Saudi job market,” Martinez said.

Sponsorship system

Aside from the unified contract, Martinez also challenged the Aquino government to join international clamor from various human rights and migrant advocate organizations for the Saudi government to end its implementation of the “kafala” or sponsorship system.

The kafala is an immigration and labor system imposed by the Saudi government for OFWs and migrant household workers. Under the sponsorship system, no migrant worker is allowed to enter the country without an “in-country” sponsor, usually the employer. The sponsor is primarily responsible for the workers’ visa and legal status.

According to the 2008 Human Rights Watch (HRW) Report, under the sponsorship system, the employer has absolute control and power over a migrant worker. Only the sponsor can give permission to an OFW to transfer work or leave the country. OFWs, under the sponsorship system, are more vulnerable to abuses and modern-day slavery. “The sponsorship system is in direct violation of Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Universal Declaration on the Protection of Migrant Workers and their Families,” said Martinez.

“These policies are the main reasons why yearly we see an increasing number of stranded OFWs, OFWs in distress, jailed OFWs and OFWs on death row in Saudi. These policies have been in place for decades now yet the Philippine government has done nothing to address them. In fact, under the Aquino administration, more OFWs have been deployed to Saudi with the opening of job markets for doctors and nurses and the recent lifting of the deployment ban on domestic workers,” he said.

Martinez said that the Philippine government is primarily accountable for failing to impose its own laws and policies on host countries like Saudi just so it could continue to implement an unabashed and unapologetic labor export policy.

Ito ang mukha ng walang-malasakit at walang-awang labor export policy. Pigang-piga na ang ating mga OFW pero patuloy pa rin tayong nagpapadala ng mga OFW doon. Kapag nagkaproblema naman, napakabagal ng tugon ng gobyerno,” Martinez said.

Next week, returned OFWs and relatives of the Saudi 200+ along with other distressed OFWs in Saudi will be holding series of “camp-out” protests to demand the junking of the unified contract and an end to the sponsorship system. Simultaneous protests will also be held by the Saudi 200+ in Riyadh, Jeddah and other parts of Saudi. ###