Thursday, January 27, 2011

Preliminary Report of the Committee on Overseas Workers’ Affairs (COWA) Fact-finding Mission to Saudi Arabia

By Rep. Walden Bello, COWA Chairman

This document is a brief preliminary report prepared for the meeting of the Committee on Overseas Workers’ Affairs on Jan 26. The full report will be available on Feb 9, 2011.

Members of the Mission

Members of the fact-finding mission to Saudi Arabia were Reps. Walden Bello, COWA chair; Carmen Zamora-Apsay; Emmeline Aglipay; and Cresente Paez.

Objectives of the Mission

The objectives of the mission were the following:

a) familiarize the COWA with the conditions facing Filipino OFWs in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), which may be described as the frontline state for the deployment of OFWs, where there have been numerous reports of abuses of Filipino workers, particularly female domestic workers;

b) assess the performance of Philippine government agencies in responding to the needs of OFWs in the country;

c) find out the response of KSA-based OFWs to key recent government initiatives such as mandatory insurance; and

d) investigate the status of Filipinos detained in Saudi jails, particularly those under the death penalty, with a view to securing their release or mitigating their sentences.

Activities of the Mission

The team visited three key cities, Riyadh, Jeddah, and Al Khobar from January 9 to Jan 13. In all the sites visited, they followed the following program:

- briefing by officials of the Philippine Embassy, Consulate General, and Philippine Overseas Labor Offices (POLO);

- dialogues with distressed female OFWs in shelters operated by the Philipine government (also known as “Filipino Workers’ Resource Centers” or FWRCs);

- visits to areas where OFWs congregate in large numbers in order to interview them at random; and

- mass meetings with the Filipino community.

Efforts were made before the arrival of the mission to secure permission from Saudi authorities to visit Filipinos in detention in the three cities but this was not granted. However, members of the team met with a key Saudi official handling one of the high-profile death penalty cases.

Findings of the Mission

What were the key findings of the mission?

First of all, the situation of Filipino domestic workers or household service workers is dire, with overwork, maltreatment, and non-payment of wages very common.

Second, rape and sexual abuse are endemic, a condition that members of the team felt was related to the sexual segregation followed in Saudi society, a tradition of treating domestic servants as slaves, and the strict subordination of women to men. The sense of the team is that the causes are not religious in nature but are rooted in social organization.

Third, a great many OFWs are swindled, with them signing contracts with a recruitment agency stipulating at least $400 monthly as pay, only to be confronted with a substitute contract upon leaving the Philippines or upon arrival in Saudi Arabia specifying a significantly lesser amount.

Fourth, there was no enthusiasm for the mandatory insurance stipulated by RA 10022, with some OFWs proposing junking it and others making constructive suggestions for amending the provision.

Filipinos in Detention

As noted earlier, a special concern of the mission was the situation of Filipinos in detention, particularly those on death row. Although the Saudi authorities did not grant the team permission to visit those detained, Rep. Bello and Rep. Paez were able to meet with the head of the Peace and Reconciliation Committee, Sheik Ahmad Al Othonen, to intercede in behalf of Dondon Celestino Lanuza, who has now spent over ten years in jail for taking the life of a Saudi national that, he claims, tried to sodomize him. From that meeting emerged news of a positive development: the father of the other party is now more open to talking about a settlement whereas he was previously against it. According to the Sharia Law that governs Saudi Arabia, Lanuza can escape the death penalty and be released if he is forgiven by the closest kin of the victim in return for a monetary settlement (blood money or tanazul).

There is no doubt that DFA personnel actively monitor developments in the death row cases and make active representation for the OFWs involved. Saudi lawyers are engaged, Saudi authorities are lobbied, efforts are made to negotiate monetary settlements with the kin of the victims, whether these relatives are located in Saudi Arabia or, in cases where Filipinos are accused of killing other Filipinos, in the Philippines. The pace of the justice system, however, is not within the control of DFA officials, and, as in the case of Lanuza and several others, little progress can be made when relatives are dead-set against a monetary settlement.

While the mission can say that the DFA is actively engaged with death penalty cases, it is less certain about its engagement with the non-death row cases, such as “immorality,” a criminal charge levied on unmarried couples seen in each other’s company. Some OFW’s claim that the DFA focuses its work and financial resources mainly on the death penalty cases.

Crimes against Filipinos

The mission was also concerned with the unresolved deaths of Filipino nationals reported in the press. Some mission members were perturbed that DFA personnel did not seem to be updated on the cases. Developments in eight cases for which information was requested was not immediately available from them, and the information provided on two cases was limited to the cause of death as determined by autopsies of the victims

More energetic follow-up work of reports of murdered Filipinos, including interviews of people who knew them, appears to be in order.

Performance of Philippine Government Officials

A more detailed assessment of Philippine government officials on the ground in Saudi Arabia will be provided in the full report. While there are valid complaints regarding the delivery of services, the chair notes that the interaction with key members of the Embassy, Consulate General, and POLO revealed them to be solid, dedicated professionals, trying their best with the limited resources available to them.

Special mention must be made of the vital but unsung role played by Philippine Overseas Labor Offices. These teams are severely understaffed, yet their rescue teams have liberated scores of Filipinas from oppressive employers who have often locked them up. The rescue missions are sometimes dangerous; in one instance, a team had to rescue a Filipina from a remote tribal area where they were met and threatened with tribesmen bearing rifles. The missions are also often carried out with minimum knowledge of the location of the victims who cannot give clear directions because they are not familiar with the neighborhoods in which they are located. In some cases, high tech electronic assistance to pinpoint the location of the victims by tracing their cell phone signals is provided by Filipinos working in Saudi telecommunications companies.

Preliminary Recommendations

The preliminary recommendations of the chairman of the COWA to the Philippine government are the following:

a) Decertify Saudi Arabia as a country fit to receive domestic workers in accordance with Section 3 of Republic Act 10022, which states that “the Department of Foreign Affairs, through its foreign posts, shall issue a certification to the POEA, specifying therein the pertinent provisions of the receiving country’s labor/social law, or the convention/declaration/resolution or the bilateral agreement/arrangement which protect the rights of migrant workers.”

b) Urgently press the Saudi government to negotiate a bilateral labor agreement with the Philippine government that would secure respect and iron-clad protection for the rights of all classes of Filipino overseas workers. This recommendation of the earlier mission to Saudi Arabia consisting of Reps. Rufus Rodriguez, Luz Ilagan, and Carlos Padilla is one that our mission strongly reiterates.

c) Coordinate with other labor-sending countries such as Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and India to gain leverage vis-a-vis Saudi Arabia in order to secure respect for overseas workers’ rights.

d) Urge members of Congress to work with LGUs in launching information campaigns to dissuade people from going to Saudi to engage in domestic work and related occupations such as “washers” and “beauticians.”

e) Prosecute recruitment agencies that have a record of deploying domestic workers to households and establishments that maltreat workers.

f) Prosecute recruitment agencies that are party to substitute contracting and similar activities under the Anti-Trafficking Act.

g) Ensure that the budget for Assistance to Nationals and the Legal Assistance Fund is not reduced and, if possible, that increased.

h) Increase efforts to secure the release of death row victims as well as other nationals currently detained in Saudi jails on various charges.

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