‘Katas ng Saudi’

Manila, Philippines.Who among us grew up hearing stories about “buhay-Saudi” and seeing ornate public jeepneys sporting the tagline “Katas ng Saudi”? The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has and always will be the number one destination country for overseas Filipino workers. Yes, despite its Saudization policy.

Let me explain why. During the oil shocks in the mid-80s, countries in the Middle East led by Saudi Arabia were awashed with petro dollars, their economies raring to go full steam but lacking in manpower resources to carry out the massive infrastrucute projects that such development requires.

It was during this time that the Philippine government particularly the Department of Labor and Employment with my late father, Ka Blas Ople as secretary, entered into an agreement with Saudi Arabia to supply their manpower needs. World-class construction firms based in the Philippines bidded for multi-million dollar projects in Saudi Arabia that necessitated bringing in Filipino workers skilled in running and working in the field.

From then till now, the Saudis are familiar with the work ethic and qualities of the Filipino worker, compared to that of other nationalities. Some of these contracts have even become generational with the father passing his employment to a son while the latter enters retirement age. Other OFWs in Saudi Arabia have grown families there, or have relocated their spouses and dependents to the desert kingdom.

If there could be any race that can best understand the driving force behind Saudi Arabia’s policy on Saudization it would be us, Filipinos. After all, we were there first as a community of expatriate workers especially from Asia. Our workers in Saudi Arabia, especially the old-timers, have seen how fast this expatriate community has grown especially during the past few years. Not all of these nationalities are as educated, honest, and hardworking as our “kababayans”. Granted that we also have our own share of scoundrels, but as a whole, the Filipino communities in Saudi Arabia have learned to live gracefully amongst the locals.

Today, we see the old-timers coming home, and the women abused and who have ran away, trying their best to either stay or come home. For the old-timers, a counter culture-shock awaits. Reconciliation with their estranged families would be difficult, especially if there are other “families” waiting in the wings. Some left in the prime of their youth only to return with an assortment of ailments and an anorexic wallet.

Saudization yields as many individual telenovelas as there are illegal foreign workers. What is important is for all governments, workers, Saudi employers, and agencies to make sure that no civil rights are trampled upon in the exodus.

We are witnessing a proverbial writing on the wall and it uses bold, Italic font with underscoring supplied. It says job opportunities overseas are shrinking faster than job creation here at home is expanding. We can’t be a nation of OFWs forever. This writer and OFW advocate appeals to our own government officials not to belittle the impact that Saudization has on our affected workers. It is a traumatic ordeal to have to leave or otherwise suffer detention and deportation. Unfortunately, the amnesty period has ended and those left behind with unprocessed papers must face the music, no matter how harsh it may sound.

I have a sneaking suspicion that defensiveness has taken over, closing the doors on a more “bayanihan” approach to the repatriation of our workers. This shouldn’t be the case. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Department of Labor and Employment must not be too onion-skinned to think that letting in more stakeholders to help our workers reflects poorly on their performance.

Tap the private sector for ticket donations. Bring bloggers to Saudi Arabia so they can write about what’s going on. Hold dialogues with civil sociey groups so that we could also be a part of the solution. Open a hotline that is simple, easy-to-remember, and unified so that a worker in Al Khobar will be calling the same hotline as a worker in Riyadh, and get the same quality of assistance.

What differentiates the OFW in Saudi during the 80s compared to now is that they were fewer then and their recruitment agencies actually knew who their Arab employers were. Today, the recruitment agencies only know who their counterpart agencies are. The chain of accountability and familiarity is quite tenuous. The advantage of an OFW in Saudi now as compared to decades ago, is access to technology. But what use is technology if government lacks the will to apply it evenly and well especially during crisis situations?

“Katas ng Saudi” has powered thousands, if not millions, of Filipino households over the years. Now is not the time to severe such ties and forego longstanding friendships. Saudization is but an offshoot of economic indicators that have an impact on political stability within and among states. I suggest we slow down in pulling the rhetorical trigger, and focus on helping our returning OFWs get back on their feet again.

(Send comments to toots.ople@yahoo.com. Follow me on Twitter via www.twitter.com/susanople)

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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