November 3, 2021
After a recent trip to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III announced that P4.6 B worth of unsettled labor claims for an estimate 9,000 OFWs will finally be paid by December of this year supposedly after securing assurance from the Saudi government.
In 2016, when Saudi companies declared bankruptcy, more than 50,000 OFWs were displaced by the crisis and did not receive their end of service benefits, overtime pay, and months’ worth of wages.Getting OFWs’ labor claims is long overdue. The same promise was made at the beginning of Duterte’s presidency in 2016 and our displaced OFWs have been pressing the Philippine government to take action for more than four years. This is a grave violation of the labor right of our OFWs to just and favorable remuneration. OFWs have suffered waiting for their hard-earned wages and benefits.
At the height of the Saudi crisis in 2016, hundreds of displaced OFWs were stranded for many months seeking shelter in POLO’s Bahay Kalinga, awaiting for their labor claims to be resolved, but were forced to accept the Philippine government’s repatriation program.
POLO and Embassy officials in KSA promised our OFWs that they will be assisted in processing their labor claims once they return to the Philippines. They waited too long to take action. Providing our OFWs with immediate legal and welfare assistance while they were still in Saudi should have been prioritized for a timely resolution of their labor claims and to ensure the rights of our OFWs are asserted and protected.
Mr. Anthony Patiag, an OFW who worked for Rajeh H. Al-Marri & Sons Co. (RHM) as a heavy driver in 2009 with a basic salary of 1,500 Saudi Riyals, claims he, along with 159 of his fellow OFWs, never received their end of service benefits and up to months long of unpaid wages. With over nine months of unpaid wages, RHM owes almost 180,000 SR to Mr. Patiag, an amount that could have supported the basic needs of his family.
While the payment of OFWs’s labor claims is a positive step, Secretary Bello should disclose the total amount of unpaid labor claims of OFWs. We fear that the amount being floated will only be a drop in the bucket of OFWs’ labor claims.
At the end of one of his sorties in the UAE, a question was asked about OFWs’ PhilHealth payments. Bello responded by saying that he will only be able to act on the issue if he becomes senator. Ang kapal ng mukha! After failing to protect OFWs and our rights during his stint as Labor secretary, Bello has the gall to use an official government activity to campaign for senator. This incident gives us a clue about his motives in threatening KSA with a deployment ban and announcing the payment of OFWs labor claims. It is election season again in the Philippines, and OFWs are being courted again for their votes and influence over their families. These politicians remember OFWs only when they need our votes and influence!
The announcement came after Secretary Bello wrote a memo to Pres. Rodrigo Duterte that asks the latter to consider a deployment ban until the KSA government settles all the labor claims of OFWs. This is an empty threat that has been used time and again by the Philippine government and is not a solution to the woes of our OFWs. Such threats have been made when there are major cases of abuse involving Filipino domestic workers in the Middle East that draw intense media attention and outrage from Filipinos.
The threat of deployment ban seems to be the only “weapon” the Philippine government can use to defend the rights of our migrant workers who have become victims of labor exploitation — as if it can provide jobs to millions of Filipinos whose families are hungry and forced to work abroad. Yet, it is still in the interest of the Duterte government to export Filipinos as cheap labor for foreign corporations even if they refuse to recognize and respect the rights of our OFWs.The government wants to project strength and decisiveness when it has acted too late on the issue. It wants to appear concerned for the welfare of our OFWs, when it has consistently shown that it is heartless towards OFWs’ plight.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is currently experiencing another economic crisis and a significant number of OFWs are already losing their jobs. How can Secretary Bello assure our newly displaced OFWs will not suffer the same fate?
We challenge Secretary Bello and the Duterte government to ensure that billions worth of unpaid wages and benefits will truly reach all displaced OFWs who were repatriated. If Secretary Bello’s promise falls short yet again, our government is criminally complicit in allowing thousands of Filipinos to be used as slave labor.###