Position Paper for the House Committee on Overseas Workers Affairs Meeting

January 21, 2020
House Committee on Overseas Workers Affairs Meeting
Migrante International Position Paper
Re: OFWs in the Middle East

Attention: Chairman of the Committee Raymond Mendoza and other Committee members

The dialogue today about the US-Iran political tensions and the recent death of OFW Jeanelyn Villavende should not be viewed and discussed as separate and distinct events but as related and key in developing a comprehensive analysis of the state of the Middle East and its impact on the millions of our OFWs in the region.

The Middle East is facing an unprecedented economic crisis. A crisis which has already brought detrimental consequences to the welfare and lives of our millions of Filipino migrant workers – both documented and undocumented- in the region. A crisis which has also produced another crisis – the widespread human rights abuses committed against our migrant Filipino workers.

The number and nature of the reported cases of various forms of abuse and exploitation and urgent pleas for help and assistance from our OFWs in the past three years documented by our organization alone reveal the perilous and insecure state facing our OFWs in the Middle East region.

Migrant Filipino Women
Unspeakable and horrific violence are facing our migrant women domestic workers in particular. They are harassed, abused, beaten, raped and killed in the most brutal and inhumane manner. Jeanelyn Villavende, who was killed by her employer in Kuwait and also recently found to be a victim of rape according to the autopsy conducted by the National Bureau of Investigation demonstrates this brutality. Many have requested to be rescued and repatriated but still remain at the hands of their abusive employer.

Countless of female distressed OFWs who are under the care of the Social Welfare Administration in Kingdom of Saudi Arabia have experienced labor and contract violations, physical abuse, unpaid and delayed salaries, working more than 8 hours without overtime pay, no vacation pay, attempted rape and molestation by their employers. Our migrant women are suffering from systematic gender-based violence and vulnerabilities with little to no protections afforded to them.

Deaths and Stranded OFWs
Our migrant workers are dying at an alarming rate—deaths that are due to disturbing patterns of abuse. According to OWWA, there have already been 400 of our OFWs who have died in Kuwait alone in the past three years. Notably, at least half of whom have died under questionable circumstances. Many grieving families and loved ones are seeking answers and justice, and yet find themselves losing hope. Moreover, there are about an estimate of 1,200-1,400 distressed OFWs who remain stranded in emergency shelters run by our Philippine embassies in the region, waiting for months even years to be repatriated back home. Majority of them have run away from their employers due to different forms of abuse and maltreatment. Majority are women.

US-Iran Conflict and Philippine Government response

The US-Iran conflict has brought about even more instability to our OFWs in the Middle East region and we are concerned about how our government has responded to protect the welfare of our OFWs.

First, the President’s declaration of siding with the US in the event that something happens to our OFWs completely disregards that it was the US who instigated the act of aggression towards Iran and places our OFWs in even more danger. Our country should not be involved in this war and we should promote peace in the Middle East region.

Second, by sending combatants – 8,000 soldiers- instead of humanitarian missions composed of teams of health workers, social workers, translators and diplomats who can provide a much more diverse array of services in times of political turmoil and crisis given their special skills — signals a message of readiness for war and not for a comprehensive response to protecting the welfare of our OFWs.

Third, by sending and tasking DENR Secretary Cimatu to lead the special envoy to the Middle East is an insult to OFWs given his past record of misusing evacuation funds during President Arroyo’s administration. It is no less than OWWA who reported that not a single OFW was evacuated during the time of the US-Iraq War.

Fourth, our OFWs and their families have not been informed of the details of the government’s evacuation and contingency plan. Where can OFWs seek safety before they will be evacuated?
Previous government response to wars in the Middle East – Libya and Syria – and challenges

In developing a comprehensive evacuation and contingency plan, it is important to take note of the challenges we faced during the time of war in Libya and Syria.

1. Not having the full accounting of all our OFWs in the Middle East region, especially our undocumented migrant workers who make up about 1/3 of the migrant workers in the region. We must know the exact location of all our OFWs in times of crisis and turmoil. What is the plan of the government to know where they are and how to contact them to communicate the emergency plans?
2. Only a small budget was allotted for the evacuation and there were few diplomatic staff to support millions of our workers. How will the government also ensure that the budget allotted for evacuation and contingency plans will truly be spent to serve the concrete needs of our OFWs and not to advance a US-led war?

3. Our OFWs in Syria were reporting that their employers will ask for a repatriation refund. Employers even raised this fee up to as much as $10,000 per worker. How will our workers be able to afford that? Will the government allot funds for that and where will it get the funds?

4. Many domestic helpers were left behind by their employers and many migrant workers could not leave the country without their employers issuing exit visas. If they run away, they will be vulnerable and placed in immigration jail. How can our government work towards negotiating with host countries for issuance of blanket clearance to ensure safe and efficient evacuation?

5. About 80% of the 1,800 OFWs repatriated from Syria were victims of human trafficking according to a report provided by the Inter-Agency Council Against Trafficking (IACAT). This is significant and alarming. How can our government ensure our OFWs who will be repatriated will not fall victim to human trafficking?

How should our Congress act and respond?

We recommend our members of Congress to:
1. Develop a comprehensive response and plan to the political and economic crisis in the Middle East in order to fully protect our OFWs
2. Consult with OFWs who have experienced previous wars in the Middle East and learn from their experiences and the weaknesses of government response
3. Conduct a full auditing of our OFWs in the region – especially our women and children
4. Immediately repatriate our distressed OFWs who are stranded in the emergency shelters of our embassies
5. Declare a position of neutrality and stand for peace in the Middle East region, not war.