By INA ALLECO R. SILVERIO
MANILA — Imagine if your husband, father, brother or son were ill, was forced to live in very cramped quarters and unable to return home from a distance of almost 5,000 miles as the crow flies. Imagine this and you will be able to understand the grief and desperation of the loved ones and relatives of some 200 overseas Filipino workers who have been stuck and stranded in Saudi Arabia for the last six months.
“We just want our loved ones to return home. Why can’t the Aquino government help us bring them home? The government keeps saying that OFWs are the country’s new heroes, but look at how it’s treating them! My father already has diabetes, and he texted us that it’s getting worse because he doesn’t have medicine for it,” said Mae Valmeo.
May’s father, Juanito, is one of the more than 200 OFWs from the Al Swayeh company, Al-Zahran, Al-Naseeb Establishment, Al Sabillah and Al Phat companies that have, in the last year, been implementing various inhumane and anti-labor work policies. Their Filipino workers were all deployed to Saudi by active recruitment agencies licensed by the Philippine Overseas Employment Agency (PEA), such as Saveway International Man Power, Osims Oriental Skills International Manpower, RPF Business Management & Consultancy Inc, Irsal Employment Services Inc., GBMLT Manpower Services Inc., Nawras Manpower Services Inc. (formerly Nawras Manpower Services), Al Assal Manpower Inc., Matawi, and 4 Brothers.
Since July, the OFWs have been seeking assistance from the Philippine government after they were forced to hold a “stop work” protest, a hunger strike and finally leave their employers in July in protest against their respective companies’ abusive employment practices. They and their families in the Philippines have sought and secured the assistance of Migrante International and its regional chapter in the Middle East to push the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) into helping the OFWs.
Useless OWWA promises
Migrante International has set up dialogues between the families and the OWWA but, Valmeo said, while the OWWA issued promises that it will help the stranded OFWs, it has done actually nothing to bring them home
“We attended the meetings, we listened to their promises and believed them — but it has been three months and our loved ones are still in Saudi, helpless and hopeless,” Valmeo said, her eyes streaming. “My father is sick, and we are all very worried for him. In the meantime, our family here is facing so many financial problems. I have two siblings who are still attending school — we all rely on my father for money,” she said. Her father used to work as a driver in Riyadh.
The protest of the families coincided with the anniversary of the implementation of the OWWA Omnibus Policies (OOP). The OOP or OWWA Resolution No.038 was implemented on September 19, 2003, and in it, all OFWs were forced to pay US$25 in contributions to OWWA because it was made mandatory with every contract they signed. The OOP also streamlined benefits and services provided by the OWWA to its members. Since 2003, migrant advocacy groups have been demanding the scrapping the OOP.
Among the provisions Migrante International continues to actively denounce are those regarding the termination of OWWA membership upon expiration of employment contract; the restriction of voluntary membership to two years; selective repatriation of migrant workers in times of crises, epidemics and wars; and the sole deciding authority of the OWWA Board of Trustees with regard to the agency’s operations.
“This whole situation should not have happened if the POEA had done its duty to monitor more diligently the labor practices of the companies in Saudi that hire Filipinos. Now that there’s this situation, the least that the government can do is to help the OFWs to return to the Philippines to their families. The OWWA is the main agency that has the responsibility to help the OFWs and to ensure their repatriation at the soonest. The OWWA is the agency tasked to facilitate the OFWs’ repatriation because all of them are active members,” said Migrante International chairman Garry Martinez.
Under the current OWWA policy, only active members of OWWA can utilize OWWA services and benefits that include a P100,000 ($2,300) life insurance (for natural death), and P200,000 ($4,600) insurance (for accidental death), disability benefits, scholarship programs, repatriation and reintegration programs.
Evelyn Marquez, wife of Danilo, one of the Saudi 200, also expressed outrage against the OWWA, saying that its employees and officials were callous against the plight of the OFWs in Saudi.
“They are heartless, they are insensitive. They say that they will help OFWs only if they are active OWWA members, and that by itself is outrageous: all OFWs should be covered by OWWA because all OFWs have at one time or another contributed to the OWWA funds. As for our relatives, they are all active OWWA members, but the OWWA has done nothing at all to help them in the terrible predicament they’re facing now,” she said.
Evelyn said her husband and many of the others have worked in Saudi from 12 to 18 years.
“The entire time they’re been contributing to OWWA, but now that they need its help the OWWA won’t assist them. OWWA officials have been avoiding us families, like we’re a nuisance in their lives. Our loved ones are suffering in Saudi, helpless and forced to live like vagrants and mendicants in the embassy in Riyadh. Back home here, many of our children have been forced to drop out of school. As for President Benigno Aquino III, when he was still campaigning he made promises to always help OFWs, but now his government can’t even provide paracetamol tablets for them,” she said.
Evelyn clarified that they are not begging the OWWA for help. “We are demanding that it does its duty, that it performs its mandate. The OWWA officials keep saying that there’s a process to be followed, but what is this process? How long is this process going to take? We’ve been coming back and forth to the OWWA since July, but it has not lifted a finger at all,” she said.
Martinez said that for months the Saudi 200++, as they are collectively called, have been jobless and always on the verge of starvation, but the OWWA has failed to provide immediate financial assistance for most of them.
The sister of another OFW in Saudi, Josefina Pitao, said the family of her brother Allan Cuhayagan had already sold their small house.
“Allan only needs an exit visa, but the company he used to work for won’t give it to him because it’s demanding money from the labor agency that recruited Allan to work in Saudi. The recruitment agency in the meantime has told us that it won’t help us with that because the company is demanding too much money. Where are we to turn to for help? Who will help us? How will my brother be able to return home? He has two small children and his wife is unemployed,” she said.
Josefina said her efforts to help her brother has also taken a toll on her own family’s finances.
“We’ve sought the help of Vice-president Jejomar Binay and went to his office at the Coconut Palace. A representative there said that the vice-president will instruct the Department of Foreign Affairs to help us, but afterwards we were told that Binay is unable to do anything either. In Riyadh, the ambassador of the Philippine embassy refuses to show his face to the OFWs. Why are they doing this to us and our loved ones? They’re all washing their hands of their duty to give us the help we need,” she said.
Deplorable conditions of OFWs in Saudi
In the meantime, an OFW who was able to return home last August from Riyadh said the conditions of his compatriots left behind was really terrible.
Emerson Arbillo was a maintenance worker employed by the Al Swayeh company, but in the year and a half that he worked for it, he was only paid once, and the equivalent amount was for two months.
“I was paid only once, and then nothing more. Work itself was erratic, sometimes we would be busy from 8:00 to 5:00 p.m., then the next few days there would be nothing for us to do. I was forced to look for part-time work elsewhere, and risked getting caught because working for another company other than the one an OFW has a contract with is illegal. It was very hard. When the strike was launched, I had no choice but to participate,” he said.
He was able to return home last August 21 with the help of his agency, which fortunately did not abandon him or turn away when he called it for help.
“I was very lucky. So many of the others back in Saudi have received no help at all from their agencies or the government. When I got back here I found out that my own agency knew that Al Swayeh had a record of labor rights violations since 2007, but it still continued recruiting workers for it. I don’t understand how this could have happened and why the POEA allows this kind of thing to happen,” he said.
Emerson said that in his last months in Saudi, it was his family in the Philippines who sent him money instead of the other way around.
“My brother sent me money for my food and other basic needs. I have two children in school, and my wife earns only so much as a tutor. I’ve been luckier than most because I have relatives who have the financial means to support me. Many of the others in Saudi are not as fortunate — many of them do not eat regularly because they have no money. Some are already sick because the space is so small and there are so many people. We all tried to help each other, but what everyone needs is to get home,” he said.
The Saudi 200++ and their families are also demanding the blacklisting of the Saudi companies, suspension of the licenses and banning of their illegal recruiters, the refund of their placement fees, their back wages, and financial assistance from the government. With the help of Migrante International, they are pushing for congressional inquiries and dialogues with legislators on allegations of labor rights violations, illegal recruitment and negligence of embassy and Philippine Overseas Labor Office (POLO)-OWWA officials.
In a recent report, the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) has said that 98 overseas OFWs Filipino workers who won a labor dispute against Al Swayeh may be repatriated within September.
In a report, Labor secretary Rosalinda Baldoz said the company’s owner committed to send home 82 of the 98 workers within the month. The 98 OFWs had sued Al Swayeh for its failure to pay their wages and end-of-service benefits (ESBs).
It was also said in a report from the Dole that 90 of the 98 OFWs had already received payments for their unpaid salaries amounting to 500,402 Saudi Riyals, or P5.6 million. In the meantime, 24 workers were reportedly given their monetary claims representing their ESBs amounting to SR111,220, or P1.25 million. To date, the OFWs have received a total of SR1,090,785 (P12,281,729) from the company.
Mismanaging the OWWA funds
Migrante International has previously accused the government and OWWA officials of “robbing millions of OFW money” from shady deals with several officials close to the former Macapagal-Arroyo administration. It cited the transfer of some P6.8 billion ($161.9 million) in OWWA funds to two government banks the Development Bank of the Philippines and Land Bank of the Philippines in 2006, which caused the delay in the repatriation of 30,000 OFWs during the Lebanon crisis. It also cited the release of $293,500 in 2004 to then General Roy Cimatu, head of the Philippine Disaster Preparedness Team in Iraq. None of the money has been completely accounted for and liquidated, the group said.
The group has also opposed the agency’s reintegration loan program wherein P2 billion ($47.6 million) is allotted for returned OFWs and their families who want to put up small businesses.
Migrante’s Martinez said the reintegration loan package was a dole out program that uses money directly from OFW contributions. “The loans are from the OWWA funds that are directly owned by OFWs; how can the OWWA lend money to the owners of the fund itself? And in any case, these loan packages do nothing to address massive unemployment and job generation for thousands of returned OFWs,” he said.
The migrant leader said the OOP effectively transformed OWWA funds from a “trust fund” into an “investment fund”.
“OWWA funds have always been prone to misuse and abuse, but because of the OOP it has become more vulnerable to corruption. The government has been using the OWWA as a stand-by fund of sorts, ready to be disposed of for any purpose if it doesn’t have anything to do with OFW welfare issues,” Martinez said.
The migrant leader insisted that the OWWA funds are only held in trust to the government and the rightful owners and stakeholders of the OWWA funds are the OFWs themselves.
“OFWs and their families have all the right to protect and secure the funds. Since the Macapagal-Arroyo government had been office, OFWs and their families have been demanding an audit of the OWWA funds and to stop the irresponsible, illegal use of it. We’re not against using the OWWA funds for the welfare and assistance of OFWs who were laid off due to global financial crisis; this is in fact the very purpose of the funds. What we are outraged against is how the government denies OFWs the right to use the OWWA funds for their social and welfare needs as well as for their families. This has been the case since the OOP was implemented,” Martinez said.
Finally, the group said it will keep an eye on the Aquino government and ensure that it does not use the funds the same way its predecessor did to implement its own political and electoral agenda. It said it will also continue campaigning for the creation of a special congressional oversight committee with representation from OFWs and their organizations and church leaders that will look into the disbursement of the funds and ensure that it will go to the rightful beneficiaries.