Call to bar Filipino workers from going to Gulf

A group of Philippine congressmen and women are calling on the government to bar domestic workers from going to the Middle East.

MANILA // A group of Philippine congressmen and women are calling on the country's government to bar domestic workers from going to the Middle East and Gulf states, claiming they are being treated "as nothing more than modern-day slaves". More than one million Filipinos, mostly poorly educated women, work in the Middle East and Gulf states as domestic helpers. The New York-based rights group Human Rights Watch, in its World Report 2010, said many female domestic workers throughout the region are subjected to unpaid wages, food deprivation, forced confinement, physical or sexual abuse and long working hours.

More than eight million Filipinos live and work in more than 120 countries around the world, many of them as domestics. The Philippine Central Bank reported this month that remittances from January to November last year rose 5.1 per cent over the corresponding period in 2008 to US$15.8 billion (Dh58bn), an amount equivalent to roughly 10 per cent of the country's gross domestic product. "Overseas Filipino workers have now become an integral part of the economy," said Ellene Sana, executive director of the Centre for Migrant Advocacy.

"They are no longer considered as people but as commodities," she said. This mass migration of Filipinos, especially female domestic helpers, has become a major concern as there are no internationally accepted standards for protecting them or migrant workers in general." Three Filipino politicians recently toured the Middle East and Gulf states on a fact-finding mission to see for themselves the condition of domestic workers and they are in the process of finalising a report to present to Congress. But with elections due in May the report will probably not see the light of day until a new government is sworn in at the end of June.

Luz Ilagan, who represents the women's group Gabriela in Congress, was on the fact-finding trip. She said the group was primarily concerned with the plight of domestic workers. "These are the most vulnerable and least protected of our overseas workers. "The stories we were told ranged from sexual and physical abuse to non-payment of wages and long work hours. Basically we were looking at 21st-century slavery."

She said the group would like to see the government - either the present government of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, the president, or whoever takes her place - implement a ban on those employers cited for abuse. The politicians also urged the government, particularly the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration, which is responsible for overseeing the deployment of Filipino workers, to punish agencies involved in illegal recruitment or contributing to the abuse of Filipino domestic workers.

"The problem is not only on the employer's side, it is on our side as well," she said. Mrs Ilagan and her colleagues, the congressmen Carlos Padilla and Rufus Rodriguez, who are all members of the House committee on workers affairs, interviewed 400 Filipino domestics who had run away from their employers and sought refuge in embassies or consulates in Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the UAE. Mr Padilla described how one of the runaways hid inside a rubbish bin while waiting to be rescued by a representative of the Philippine Embassy.

Mrs Ilagan recounted the story of one Filipina who was so desperate she jumped from the second-storey window of her employer's house and broke her back. "In another case one woman told how she escaped the home of her abusive employers and was raped by a taxi driver who had picked her up," Mrs Ilagan said. Despite the problems the Middle East and Gulf states are consistently at the top of the list of overseas destinations for Filipino workers.

According to the latest figures from the overseas employment agency, 72 per cent of migrant Filipino workers went to Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain and Oman in 2008, compared with 65 per cent in 2007. Figures for 2009 are not available. Most were female domestic workers. In 2006 the Philippine government introduced a series of reforms to better prepare workers for overseas jobs, including upgrading the skills of domestic workers and introducing a minimum salary of $400 a month. "But under a regime which encourages labour export, these reforms only encouraged creative countermeasures from recruiting agencies and prospective employers abroad. Illegal deployment and trafficking, for instance," Mrs Ilagan said.

She said local Philippine agencies with partners in the Middle East scour the Philippine provinces for recruits they bring abroad without even passing through the employment administration. "The Philippine government is doing a pitiful job protecting the rights and welfare of Filipino workers, especially in the Middle East," Garry Martinez, the chairman of Migrante International, said recently. "When OFWs are in trouble, more often than not it is migrant organisations like Migrante who come to their aid."

Mr Padilla said one of the problems was the lack of any bilateral agreements between the Philippine government and governments in the Middle East and the Gulf protecting the rights of Filipino workers. From January to September last year, Mr Padilla said, the government repatriated more than 8,000 overseas Filipino workers from around the world. "One of the basic problems is the deep cultural differences between the Philippines and the Middle East," Mrs Ilagan said.

"By law all overseas workers should attend seminars before they are deployed abroad, but with 3,000 people leaving this country a day the government agencies responsible can't cope. "At the same time, our embassies do not have the money nor the staff to cope with the problems they are having to face every day with runaways." What started out as an experiment by Ferdinand Marcos in 1974 to promote Filipino talent overseas has now grown into an integral part of the country's economy.

"Migration cannot be used as a development strategy," Ms Sana of the Centre for Migrant Advocacy said. "It becomes an economic question rather than a social issue." foreign.desk@thenational.ae