Building synergies for OFWs’ protection

As you read this column, a high-level technical working group led by Administrator Hans Leo Cacdac of the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) is in Saudi Arabia to discuss the move of the Saudi government to limit the recruitment of foreign workers to only a handful of elite recruitment agencies.

The POEA is the sole government agency that regulates the activities of licensed recruitment agencies that deploy Filipino workers abroad. Under Philippine laws, a licensed recruitment agency is jointly and severally liable for the malpractices of its counterpart agency overseas as well as the foreign employer. A Filipino in Saudi Arabia, for example, that has suffered physical abuse and was not paid the prescribed mandatory $400 salary for Filipino domestic workers has every right to file a complaint with the POEA against her local agency even if that agency had no direct control over the behavior of her Saudi employer.

There are many other such regulations and policies created and developed for the protection of overseas Filipino workers. Other labor-sending countries have created their own social protection programs as well. Labor migration has such a huge social cost that are often political in nature, and the shifting tides in the global economy continue to affect movements of foreign workers around the world.

The technical working group from the Philippines will hopefully soon come home with a deeper understanding of Saudi Arabia’s long-term goals on the labor front. The success of Nitaqat was a product of cooperation not just within the Saudi bureaucracy but also between the Kingdom and its economic and labor partners. But even then, its implementation required many adjustments along the way including extensions that were necessary to ensure a fair, humane, and orderly process.

Why should the designation of an elite group of Saudi-based recruitment agencies be a cause of concern for stakeholders in labor-sending countries? For one, there is always that fear that the foreign workers will be the least protected in a labor supply contract, especially those that deal with the recruitment and supply of workers in bulk. This happened to a male Filipino nurse who was recruited by a labor supply company through an agency in Manila, brought to Riyadh, only to find out that there was no hospital job waiting for him. The outsourcing company recruited him and many others in anticipation of a labor supply contract that had yet to be signed. He was assigned odd jobs to do and was later on dispatched to accommodations in a remote place until the intercession of the Philippine government led to his repatriation.

Foreign workers are in Saudi Arabia to help their families back home, but in so doing, they contribute so much to both economies. Throughout the years, these foreign workers were relied upon to keep the wheels of commerce in Saudi Arabia moving. For Filipinos, Saudi Arabia remains the top destination for overseas work, as it has been for decades.

Their voices and that of other foreign workers need to be heard when new plans are being drawn up to regulate their entry, monitor their stay as foreigners, and facilitate their return to the homeland. After all, these workers also serve as ambassadors of goodwill between the two countries.

This synergy must find its way in the crafting of new labor policies, out of respect for bilateral labor partnerships that have withstood the test of time.

Perhaps, regular diplomatic briefings can be held to explain the trajectory of Saudi’s labor and economic policies, as innovative as they have become. The perpetual challenge for those at the helm of Saudi’s labor policies is on how to be both global and parochial, since Saudi Arabia is second home to millions of migrant workers.

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Author: Susan Ople

Susan "Toots" Ople is the President of the Blas F. Ople Policy and Training Institute. She's an OFW and labor advocate based in the Philippines.

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