They paid fixers operating around the Philippine consulate to be able to go back home but were in stead made to live under a bridge. They asked the assistance of the Consulate but were taken to the Saudi police. They endured cramped cells with very little food and water in two deportation centers. And now, some of them are back to describe their harrowing experiences, of dreams turning into nightmares.
BY AUBREY SC MAKILAN
Vol. VIII, No. 10, April 13-19, 2008
An overseas Filipino worker (OFW), who has experienced his darkest moments being stranded in Jeddah, cried his heart out saying the hardships they have experienced in that host country were not lies as alleged by Philippine officials and the media.
After availing of the early retirement benefits in a big telecommunications company here where he worked as a telecom technician, Noel Farrales used part of it to process his papers for a work in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) in 2004.
Though he was promised a job related to his profession, he got his visa as a painter and flew to Riyadh in October 2004. Noel was attracted to a supposedly big company’s offer of a big telecom project for a proposed new jail in Riyadh.
When he arrived in Riyadh, he and fellow OFWs were asked to sign a contract by their employer, Al Mutairi Contracting Establishment. Though he hesitated to sign the contract, which was written in Arabic, he was forced to do so fearing that they would not be given their salaries if they did not sign it.
He did telecommunications and computer repairs in a building owned by his employer and not in the supposedly new jail.
But two months passed and they were not given any salary. After the third month, he received only half of his monthly salary. And the US$450 monthly salary indicated on his contract signed in the Philippines was even reduced to US$400.
After six months of receiving only half of his monthly salary, he filed a complaint at the Philippine Overseas Labor Office (POLO) in Riyadh and e-mailed his agency in the Philippines, the Principalia Management and Personnel Consultants, Inc.
On the seventh month, Noel said the POLO relayed to him that his employer said they do not issue iqama (residence permit) to non-Muslims. “Sabi nila sa akin, ‘Don’t panic.’ Aayusin daw nila” (They told me not to panic, that they will fix it), Noel said as he was reassured by his agency in the Philippines.
After hearings at the POLO, he said the Al Mutairi promised to give their unpaid salaries and plane tickets for their return to the Philippines. But after giving their salaries, they were told that their employer will just be “replaced.” His iqama was given to him only after he left his employer and was sent to Jeddah, along with fellow OFWs, for a new employer.
From 2005 to 2007, his new employer seemed to be fine. Noel worked as an electrician/telecomm technician in an electric motors company. They were receiving their salaries on time. Before his contract ends, he reminded his second employer about his iqama. But he found out that his second employer was not processing it. He said the problem was with his second employer who did not pay the transfer fee to his former employer. Aside from that, his second employer did not pay as well the interest for his expired iqama. Noel told Bulatlat it was the fault of his second employer anyway who failed to process it when it expired and Noel was already their employee. The transfer fee and the interest of his expired iqama cost about SR10,000.
“Sabi pa sa akin, you can go home but through backdoor,’ (He told me that I could go home through the back door.)” Noel said.
In January 2008, Noel stopped working after the company gave his two months salary and SR1,200 supposedly for his plane ticket. But plane tickets at that time would cost not less than SR1,500. He asked the help of the POLO to facilitate his return to the Philippines but he got a negative response.
“Di daw ako makakauwi. Finished contract… Patay na dati kong employer… Di na-transfer (sa bagong employer)… Walang iqama” (They told me I would not be able to go home. My contract was finished, my former employer is dead, and they were not able to transfer me to a new employer… I had no igama), said Noel, relaying his conversation with Labor Attaché Adam Musa. Then he realized that the reason his employer gave him his passport freely was to avoid any responsibility in paying his expired iqama for his exit.
He added that Musa told him he should first file a case at the POLO, which will work it out with his ’employer. “Wala tayong magagawa, ganyan talaga policy ng Saudi” (There’s nothing we can do, that’s Saudi policy), Musa told him, adding that it would take six months to fix his problem.
Back door or “due process”?
He was not sure if there would be prospective employers who would pay for his iqama penalty. And he would not endure six months of unemployment so Noel decided to use the backdoor channel. “Kumausap ako ng fixer, nagkalat lang naman sila sa paligid ng Consulate” (I talked to a fixer, there are many of them around the Consulate), Noel told Bulatlat, noting that bribes ranges from SR600-800 in Jeddah and could climb up to SR1,500 if the deportee is from Dammam.
As advised by his fixer, he sent home all his things including all his identification cards, documents and passport. He joined other runaways at the Al Kandhara Bridge. Contrary to their expectations, the Jawassat (police) did not arrest them. “May order pala si (Consul Ezzedin) Tago na ‘wag dadamputin ang mga Pilipino, pati y’ung mga nagpapanggap na nag-u-umrah” (It turned out that Consul Ezzedin Tago had an order not to arrest Filipinos, including those pretending to participate in the umrah. [symbolic rituals performed during a pilgrimage to Mecca any time of the year])
Some of them, including Noel, even pretended to be Indonesian pilgrims but they only received whips from the police. Jeddah, the second largest city in KSA, is the gateway for Muslim pilgrims traveling to the holy city of Mecca.
In a March 7 letter to the office of Sen. Mar Roxas and Migrante International, Usec. Esteban Conejos of the Office of the Undersecretary for Migrant Workers Affairs (OUMWA) admitted that many Filipino nationals trying to depart from Saudi use the “backdoor” channel. After obtaining identity certificates and travel documents under assumed names, they would get the service of the fixers to facilitate their exit as Muslim pilgrims.
In the letter, the DFA said there were 922 overstaying Filipino nationals deported to the Philippines in 2007 who had used the “backdoor.”
Meanwhile, Tago offered them “due process” which surprisingly would take them only four to six days. Tago also promised that they would not be sent back to their employers. But only 24 of them initially gave in to the alluring offer. The rest marched to the Consulate and held their camp-out. For that “due process,” they filled out a form and gave the Consulate their families’ contact details.
They were surprised though when Tago brought them to the Jawassat on Feb. 9. “Di daw kami ipapahuli sa Jawassat, dinala naman kami sa Jawassat” (They said they would not let the Jawassat arrest us, but we were brought to the Jawassat), said the puzzled Noel. Tago allegedly reasoned that they have to talk to the Jawassat head for “internal arrangements.” Noel added that Tago even said that their employers agreed to send them back home.
How many days of “due process”?
On board a bus with window railings, they were brought to the Jeddah Deportation Center. “Parang kriminal talaga” (They treated us like criminals), Noel said, adding that mug shots of them were taken and they were even made to pay SR10 each for it. Because of the long line of deportees, the scanning of their eyes and fingerprinting were not completed until 10 p.m. Since their arrival at 12 noon they had eaten nothing but bread which they bought from a store inside the deportation area, “na patinda pa ng pulis” (which were being sold by the police).
In the first cell, they were about 280 deportees. “Yung CR ‘di mo talaga masikmura. Halos malapit na kami sa CR dahil sa siksikan” (The CR was something you can’t stomach. We were close to the CR because there were so many of us.)
The next day, a Consulate representative brought their travel documents, which needed their signatures.
On the third day in the Jeddah Deportation, another set of papers, written in Arabic, were brought to them by the Consulate representative for signature. “Aalis na daw kami pero ‘nilipat lang kami ng selda” (They said we would be leaving but we were only transferred to another cell.)
On the fourth day, another set of papers in Arabic were given out for them to sign. “Kung ‘di ka pipirma, may tama ka. Papaluin ka” (If you didn’t sign, they would hit you.)
On the fifth day, they were again transferred to another cell. “Akala namin tiket na lang hinihintay namin” (We thought we were just waiting for our tickets.)
Another two days have passed and no representative from the Consulate came. “Pero hintay pa rin kami. In high-spirit kami kasi nga ang iniisip namin makakauwi na kami… ‘Yun pala wala si Tago nasa ibang bansa. Di kontrolado ng mga kasama n’ya ang gagawin. Y’ung vice consul n’ya di alam ang gagawin, pati POLO” (But still we waited. We were in high spirits because we thought we would finally be able to go home… It turned out Tago was not here, he was abroad. His colleagues had no control over the situation. His vice consul and even the POLO didn’t know what to do.)
After 10 days in the Jeddah deportation facility where they acquired illnesses like colds, cough and fever, 13 OFWs, including Noel, were transferred to the Riyadh Deportation Center. On board a bus, their hands and feet were cuffed. “Pa’no ka pa makakatakas n’un? SOP daw” (How could you escape in that situation. They said it was standard operating procedure.) But even in a miserable situation, Noel and fellow OFWs found something positive. “Yehey! Sabi namin. lilipat na kaming Riyadh, makakauwi na kami” (Hooray! We thought that since we were being transferred to Riyadh, we would be able to go home.)
A welfare officer told Noel that they would meet an immigration officer in Riyadh. “Akala namin sa airport, ‘yun pala sa deportation din” (We thought we were being brought to the airport. As it turned out we were brought to a deportation area.)
At the Riyadh Deportation Center, they were again asked to pay SR10 for each set of mug shots but they didn’t have money. Fortunately, one of the OFWs still had money left, and he paid for the rest of the 12 OFWs’ photos. Unlike in Jeddah, the cells at the Riyadh deportation were “smaller.”
“Sa tabi na kami ng pinto nakahiga. Ang pagitan n’yo lang tama lang para lakaran. Ang pagkain kubos (a thin, flat bread which is the staple food in many Arab countries) lang. Ang kanin parang pagkain ng baboy. Nasa isang bandehadong malaki du’n kayo kakain sama-sama. Bawal magpapasok ng pagkain, y’ung ibang dalaw patago nagdadala ng pagkain” (We were lying down beside the door. The space between us was just big enough to walk through. The food was only kubos. The rice was like pig food. It was all in a large platter from where you all had to eat together. Bringing food in was forbidden, some visitors would bring food secretly.), said Noel who was already crying and was not able to control his emotions while telling Bulatlat his experience.
“Parang sindikato na nga sa loob. Y’ung may mga perang pambili, patago silang nagdadala ng pagkain sa loob ng selda tapos ibebenta nila ng triple ang presyo. E kami, wala kaming pera kaya nagtitiis na lang kami sa gutom” (It was as though there was a syndicate inside. Those who had money would secretly bring food into the cell and then sell it at triple the price. As for us, we had no money so we just endured hunger), said Noel while sobbing. “Y’ung Embassy, paminsan-minsan nagdadala sila ng gamot. Pag di ka nagsabi, di sila magdadala. Iisang tao lang din ang laging pumupunta du’n” (The Embassy would occasionally send medicines. If you didn’t ask, they wouldn’t send medicines. There was only one person bringing the medicines.)
Noel told Bulatlat that he was the one who collapsed at the deportation. “Dahil sa pagod, init, gutom. Pa’no ba naman ‘di ka kumakain, tubig man lang wala” (From exhaustion, heat, hunger. How could you stand it when you had nothing to eat and didn’t even have water?)
He said his emotions burst whenever he recalls seeing and hearing comments from government officials and the media that they are liars. “Naiiyak lang ako sa sinasabi nila (opisyal) sa media na sinungaling kami. Kami na nga ang nakulong…kami na nga ang nahirapan…kami pa ang sinungaling?” (I can’t help but weep at what those officials tell the media that we are liars. We are the ones who were jailed, who suffered, and still we are the ones made to appear as liars?)
At whose expense
Despite the physical and mental suffering of the stranded OFWs, Rustico dela Fuenta from the Philippine Embassy in Riyadh could still tell them, “We are on top of the situation.”
But Noel said Ambassador Antonio Villamor told them that their repatriation would be expedited if they had their own money to buy their plane tickets. One OFW asked how about those who do not have money.
“’Wag n’yo intindihan ‘yan, mahalaga makakuha ng exit visa. “Pwede kayong mag-ambag-ambag ng SR1 kada isa” (Don’t worry about that, the important thing is that you get an exit visa. You can contribute SR1 each), Villamor allegedly told the deportees.
“Ha? Pero may pera naman ang OWWA (Overseas Workers Welfare Administration). Bakit kami ang mag-aambag-ambag?” (Huh? But the OWWA has money. Why do we have to contribute?) said Noel who became confused. “Ganun katindi ang ating gobyerno” (Our government is that bad.)
In a DFA letter date March, the department said that, “The Saudi government will pay for the repatriation of the overstaying pilgrims. The Philippine government will pay for the repatriation of the overstaying OFWs.”
But Noel and other OFWs returned to the Philippines on March 23 at their own expense. Even when he was already home, he still worries about those who have no money to shoulder their plane fare and, day by day, endure the hard life in deportation centers. “Isang buwan…isa’t kalahati…dalawang buwan…y’ung iba nandoon pa rin. Palipat-lipat lang ng ibang deportation” (One month…one and a half, two months…the others are still there. They’re just being moved from one deportation center to another.)
Acting Labor and Employment Secretary Marianito D. Roque earlier announced that 62 OFWs who have been stranded in various regions in Saudi Arabia would be home on or before April 15.
Meanwhile, since Noel’s OWWA membership already lapsed two years after he left in 2004, he is now asking the Department of Foreign Affairs to reimburse his plane ticket cost. Up to this writing, Noel said he has not heard a word from the DFA about his request.
Noel said that despite his harrowing experience, he would still be willing to go back to Saudi Arabia if it would give him the opportunity to support his family. He is still hopeful that next time, his dream would not turn into another nightmare. (Bulatlat.com)