“There’s now a combined estimate of at least 12,000 to 14,000 undocumented OFWs in Saudi Arabia, higher than last year’s estimate pegged from 8,000 to 10,000.” – Migrante
By INA ALLECO R. SILVERIO
MANILA — At least 7,000 overseas Filipino workers in Saudi Arabia have enlisted for voluntary repatriation since the last quarter of 2011. This is according to a report from Migrante Middle East (MME), which, in turn, cited figures from the Jeddah-based offices of the Philippine Overseas Labor (POLO) and the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA).
According to Migrante Middle East coordinator John Leonard Monterona, Migrante case officers in Jeddah had a dialogue with Polo-Owwa officials at the Philippine consulate offices in Jeddah, and it was during the dialogue that the figures were revealed.
He said the rising number of undocumented OFWs in Saudi Arabia and other mid-east countries should serve as warning for the Benigno Aquino III administration.
Monterona said there is still a possibility that the figures will still increase given that other Polo-Owwa offices in Riyadh and Al-Khobar have not been included.
“There’s now a combined estimate of at least 12,000 to 14,000 undocumented OFWs in Saudi Arabia. These are higher than last year’s estimate pegged between 8,000 to 10,000,” he said.
Monterona said many OFWs are forced to run away or abscond from their employers because of abuse, maltreatment, and labor malpractices including but not limited to non-payment of salaries and overtime work, down-grading of salary, contract substitution, working without work permit and no health insurance.
Many undocumented OFWs have been staying in Saudi for as short a time as one year, others for as long as three to six years.
“Sixty to 70 percent of the undocumented face absconding case filed by their sponsor-employers. There have been cases that undocumented OFWs can still work with the help of friends and fellow OFWs, but the jobs they hold are illegal in the sense that they are on part-time basis. Also, working for employers other than their original hosts constitute a breach of the host government’s immigration rules covering migrant workers. Undocumented OFWs, who are not lucky enough to find on-and-off part-time jobs are, on the other hand, aorced to beg for alms or food. Others resort to selling their blood in exchange for an honorarium provided by Saudi hospitals,” Monterona explained.
“The Aquino government should craft a mass repatriation policy with a detailed repatriation program. It should not follow the lead of previous administrations from Ferdinand Marcos to Macapagal-Arroyo who all failed to work for the documentation and legalization of undocumented and overstaying OFWs especially those in the Middle East and Europe,” he said.
Women OFWs appeal to Malacañang
In the meantime, Migrante is currently calling for help on behalf of six women OFWs in Saudi Arabia.
Monterona said there are currently 16 women OFWs and another six women detained inside a Saudi deportation center and jail in Dammam. One of women has two children with her inside the deportation center, while another is pregnant.
Monterona said the women are pleading with the Aquino administration to help them return to the Philippines. They have already sent a letter addressed to Malacañang and the president, begging the latter to extend his help and provide them with assistance and protection.
In their letter, the OFWs said that since they were imprisoned, they have not “felt the presence and assistance of the government.”
“No one is helping process our papers and travel documents. No one from the Philippine embassy and the offices of the Philippine Overseas Labor Office (POLO)-Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) visited us; we have not received any medicine or food from the Philippine government.”
Based on reports, most OFWs who have pending absconding cases fled from their employers who were abusive and guilty of various labor rights violations.
“Most of them eventually became undocumented or illegal overstayers,” he said. “It is unfortunate that despite our consistent campaign to expose the worsening conditions faced by undocumented OFWs not only in Saudi Arabia but the entire Middle-East region, the Aquino amdinistration chooses to play deaf, dumb, and blind to their plight.It continues to withhold services such as accessible and efficient onsite services, assistance, and protection,” Monterona lamented.
Migrante pointed out that there seems to be a “disconnect” between Aquino and Vice President Jejomar Binay, the latter being Aquino’s adviser on OFWs concerns. He said there was a very obvious absence of a systematic and comprehensive government program to uplift the conditions of OFWs especially the thousands of abused, distressed, and undocumented in the Middle East.
“We are asking if Binay in his capacity as presidential adviser on OFWs concerns, still talks to Pres. Aquino on matters related to the upliftment of the deplorable conditions abroad of OFWs amid the rise of rights violations’ victims, distressed, and undocumented,” he said.
More disservice to undocumented OFWS
In a related development, Migrante is also calling on Congress to investigate a case of corruption involving unpaid lease rentals for OFW shelters in Saudi. The group said the Philippine Consulate in Jeddah is guilty of not paying 1.3 million rials (P15.5 million or US$380,952) for the shelters, and asked that the Senate Labor committee led by Senator Jinggoy Estrada, and its House counterpart, the Committee on Overseas Workers Affairs (COWA).
Monterona said there was talk inside the consulate offices that the Philippine government has incurred the massive debt for the unpaid lease rentals for the OFW shelters inside the Al-Mina hajj terminal in Jeddah. The Al-Mina hajj terminal is owned and managed by the Saudi government’s immigration authority.
The consulate started renting the shelter in Al-Mina hajj terminal sometime October 2010 when it started the mass repatriation of undocumented OFWs who have camped out under the Khandera bridge in Jeddah.
Because of this unpaid lease rentals, Monterona said, the consulate in Jeddah was forced to paying the lease July 2011 for the villa-type building that served as temporary shelter for undocumented OFWs who chose to take advantage of the voluntary repatriation assistance of the consulate while the consulate processed the repatriation of OFWs.
“Because of the consulate’s failure to pay the rental dues, OFWs who ‘surrendered’ for voluntary repatriation especially those coming from outside Jeddah have found it difficult to find a place to stay while they are waiting to be flown home to the Philippines,” Monterona said.“The shelters were a big help to undocumented OFWs, but now they can’t use the shelters because the consulate did not pay for the rent.”
Migrantes revealed that there are at least 7,000 undocumented OFWs in Jeddah alone, but the total number of undocumented OFWs is estimated to reach 12,000 to 14,000 this year in Saudi Arabia.
Monterona said the consulate should not have had a problem paying 1.3 million rials ( US$380,952,380) because the OWWA has a P100 million ($ 2.38 million) repatriation fund allocation on the strength of Republic Act 10022 or the amended Migrant Workers Act.
In the meantime, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) has millions of funds allocated for its “assistance to the nationals’ services.”
“We want this to be investigated. The probe should primarily focus on why the consulate stopped renting the shelters; how the unpaid lease rentals accumulated to 1.3 million rials ($380,952), and what the consulate officials in Saudi Arabia headed by ambassador to Saudi Arabia Ezzadin Tago are doing to rectify the problems that have arisen as a result of the nonpayment of the lease,” Monterona said.