Saudi on my mind
Who among us have yet to encounter a Filipino without relatives, friends, and co-workers in Saudi Arabia? Our office driver, Loloy, has a brother working in Saudi Arabia. I have friends with close relatives in Saudi Arabia. The Kingdom is home to the biggest number of expatriate Filipino workers and this has been so since the start of the Philippine overseas employment program during the 70’s – 80’s.
Living and working in Saudi Arabia is not easy, but it can be rewarding particularly for those who manage to find good employers. However, every foreign worker has his or her own story, and like all migrants, these intricacies intrude in work relationships, and vice-versa, creating messy arrangements that have hardened over time.
What is going on in Saudi Arabia is a systematic, no-nonesense background check on a 2-million-strong underground community of foreign workers whose residence permits or “Iqama” cards no longer reflect their current job or employment status. The Saudi government is well within its rights to reconcile its records and deport those who have overstayed their welcome in the Kingdom especially through illegal means. These cards also tell a story, in the eyes of policy-makers – of who can stay or who should leave, among Saudi’s expatriates.
Saudization Through Nitaqat
For decades, Saudi Arabia has been a hospitable host to foreign workers, maintaining a policy of “Saudization” but not really acting on it – until recently. “Saudization” refers to an employment policy that prioritizes locals over foreigners in the job market. In 2011, the Ministry of Labor introduced “Nitaqat”, a Saudi-wide initiative to implement “Saudization” by directing all private companies to maintain a certain ratio between local and foreign workers. A “green” company means that firm met the proportion of local workers over foreign workers as set by the Ministry. A “yellow” company has locals on its payroll but not enough to merit a “green” status. A “red” company has not met the quota at all and is in danger of losing its license to operate and maintain its workers.
The deadline for private sector compliance with Nitaqat has long passed. Today, we see a more vigorous and proactive implementation of “Saudization” through Nitaqat. For this to take place, the Saudi Labor Law was amended.
The “crackdown” on illegal workers is but the strict implementation of recent amendments to the Saudi Labor Law specifying that foreign workers are not allowed to work for anyone other than their employer or sponsor, and that the employer is not allowed to leave his workers to engage in jobs for their own personal gains. In short, none of the foreign workers are allowed to go “freelance”. Every foreign worker in Saudi Arabia is given an “Iqama” or residence card that specifies the name of his or her (original) sponsor/employer and approved job description. An inter-agency team has been mobilized to check on the “iqamas” of foreign workers to ensure that what was approved visa-wise, is the same information reflected on the “iqama”.
If you are a foreign worker in Saudi Arabia and your current employer is not the employer or sponsor indicated in the “Iqama” card that you are holding, then you are liable for labor law violations.
If you are a foreign worker in Saudi Arabia and yet you do not have an “Iqama” to show for it, then you are in violation of Saudi laws.
If you are a spouse or child of a foreign worker in Saudi Arabia and yet are working for a company, then you need to stop working because being allowed to stay in the Kingdom as a foreign worker’s dependent is a privilege and not meant to open doors for his or her next of kin to work there, too.
If you are a foreign worker who absconded or ran away from the company that sponsored your entry to the Kingdom, then you need to still deal with that sponsor or employer to obtain an exit clearance to clear you of any liability otherwise you are vulnerable to charges under the Saudi labor law.
If you are a foreign worker who purchased a visa from a Saudi visa trader as a “cover” for continuing to work for different “sponsors” (in a freelance capacity), you have no choice but to reconcile efforts with your original employer (the one that made your entry to Saudi Arabia possible) and pay the appropriate penalties so that your “Iqama” can be renewed or updated, or so that the appropriate exit visa can be obtained.
What if the employer was abusive and the worker needed to escape to save her life? The foreign worker under threat from an abusive employer can seek help from the Saudi police or through his or her embassy so that an appropriate case can be filed against said abusive employer. What complicates matters is when the abused worker goes underground and lets his or her “Iqama” expires while continuing to work for other “sponsors”.
What if the original employer no longer wishes to cooperate or cannot even be located by the foreign worker? Then that foreign worker is vulnerable to arrest and deportation because the basis for the inter-agency team’s action is simply this: is the foreign worker’s visa and “iqama” still valid and in compliance with Saudi laws?
Note to the Philippine Government
The Philippine government should resist the temptation to look at and simplify developments in Saudi Arabia based on a head count of OFWs arrested and deported due to the “crackdown”. To do so would make this more of an immigration matter while overlooking the social and economic implications of such developments on households from Aparri to Jolo.
Because of Nitaqat and a more aggressive implementation of Saudi laws that come with it, the twists and turns, the highs and lows, of OFW life in Saudi are or shall soon be exposed especially to families here at home. Raids will uncover not only those in violation of labor laws, but those who have violated even their own matrimonial vows with offsprings to show for it; also to be affected are workers who have become vulnerable because their papers were not properly verified even before they left our country.
While the “crackdown” continues, these workers leading complicated lives would have to stop earning while exploring options on whether to stay and how, or to come back, when and how. Tuition stipends, monthly bills, procurement of medicines, cellphone cards — expenses made possible by the remittances of OFWs in Saudi Arabia whose mobility is now affected by the “crackdown” are invisible casualties that government would be hard put to capture.
Samu’t saring problema ang lilitaw dahil sa crackdown na ito, mga sikreto na matagal ng alam ng mga Pinoy na nasa Saudi pero maaaring hindi alam ng mga pamilya at mahal nila dito sa Pilipinas. Walang may alam kung hanggang kailan ang crackdown at ilan ang mga Pilipinong makukulong dahil hindi tugma ang kanilang Iqama at visa. Ngayon kailangan ng mga manggagawang apektado ang pagunawa at pagkalinga ng sariling pamahalaan – lalo na’t napakahirap magsimula muli sa sariling bayan pagkatapos ng ilang taon o dekada ng pagtatrabaho sa Saudi Arabia.
The Philippine government can show compassion to affected workers by:
1. Immediately augmenting the workforce of the Philippine Embassy in Riyadh and the Consulate-General in Jeddah to ensure that mobile teams can be dispatched throughout the Kingdom.
2. Enunciating a more concrete, realistic, and workable reintegration program for those to be deported taking into account the skills of these returning workers and the vacancies in the domestic job market;
3. Instructing the appropriate GFIs to extend loans to distressed OFWs who are not covered by the mandatory insurance provision of RA 10022 and have severed links with their local recruitment agencies over time, so that they can pay for their return tickets and immigration penalties while staying at deportation facilities in Saudi Arabia.
4. Making the appropriate diplomatic representations to ensure that the rights of distressed OFWs are protected especially those of women and children, including victims of forced labor and other forms of human trafficking.
5. Coming up with a single hotline that all Saudi-based OFWs in need can call or text to facilitate ease of communications while using social media to share advisories and clarify rumors/unverified reports.
According to an advisory issued by the Philippine Embassy in Riyadh, violators may run the risk of imprisonment, fines and subsequent deportation and being barred from entering the Kingdom in the future. For those who believe that their vulnerable status can lead them to deportation, it may be wise and realistic to have money available to settle outstanding immigration penalties as well as for an air ticket home. This will help hasten the worker’s exit from Saudi Arabia.
The embassy in Riyadh and the Consulate General in Jeddah has sent officials to the deportation centers and will do so on a daily basis to verify any instances of violations and imprisonment due to these cases. It will also be issuing reports to the Department of Foreign Affairs for the information of the President and the appropriate Cabinet Secretaries to ensure a coordinated response to help affected workers. Legal assistance can be provided by the embassy and consulate general via the Legal Assistance Fund as mandated by the Migrant Workers’ Act of 1995 and Republic Act No. 10022.
Filipinos in Saudi may call the following numbers for assistance and more information:
Philippine Consulate General in Jeddah?(Regions of Makkah Al-Mukarramah, Tabuk, Al-MMadinah, Abha, Jizan, Najran) :
In the regions of Riyadh, Hail, Qassim, Northern Border, Al-Jouf:
In the Eastern Region:
Note: The above information was pieced together based on interviews with OFW leaders here and in Saudi Arabia as well as based on the advisory issued by the Philippine Embassy in addition to current news reports. This writer and OFW advocate welcomes any comments or even corrections to this blog entry.
The Blas F. Ople Center wishes to thank Joseph Espiritu of Patnubay Riyadh, Jun Aguilar of the Filipino Migrant Workers’ Group and Lito Soriano of LBS Recruitment Solutions, among several other FB friends, for sharing their insights with this writer. For those who wish to get in touch with the Ople Center, please contact +632 8335337 (landline) or write to us via firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also post private messages on www.facebook.com/preventtraffickingnow.