“We fear that if the Philippine government fails to act quickly in assisting and repatriating our OFWs, they will be subjected to harsher and more stringent crackdowns and human rights violations by Saudi authorities.” – Migrante
By JANESS ANN J. ELLAO
MANILA – Under the 48-degree-celsius heat in Saudi Arabia, stranded Filipinos continue their camp out outside the Philippine consulate in Jeddah, hoping that President Aquino would act swiftly on their repatriation.
“The repatriation program of the government is nowhere to be found. Where is the assistance we expect to get as modern day heroes?” John Leonard Monterona, regional coordinator of Migrante – Middle East, said.
In a protest action in front of the Department of Foreign Affairs, members of Migrante International joined relatives of stranded OFWs in calling on the Aquino administration to act on their free and immediate mass repatriation.
Monterona said these cases should be prioritized because it is not the fault of Filipinos that they ended up undocumented and stranded.
“Most of them were forced to run away from their abusive employers. Their labor rights were violated such as working beyond eight hours and not being paid their salaries for three to six months. Others were physically and verbally abused. Their employers kick, beat and scold them. This is why we have stranded and undocumented OFWs,” Monterona added.
During the protest action, Marilyn Martillan, 33, in tears, shared that her sister Marian Guinto, 34, was forced to leave her employer’s house because their driver was sexually harassing her.
Guinto left the country in 2010. It was her first time to work abroad. Martillan said her older sister wanted to give her husband and their two children a better future. She worked as a domestic helper in Jeddah.
“During her first month there, she had an asthma attack. But her employer accused her of faking it, saying she had a medical test before (leaving the Philippines) and the result did not show that she has asthma,” Martillan told Bulatlat.com.
So when the family driver started making sexual advances on Guinto, Martillan said, she did not bother to tell her employer anymore. “She knew that they would not believe her.”
“There were also times when her female employer was seemingly jealous of her,” she added.
Guinto lived with other undocumented Filipinos. She worked as a part-time nanny. But she could not send money back to her family. “You need an iqama (work permit) to send remittances,” she said.
The last time her sister was able to communicate with Guinto via Skype, all Guinto did was to cry. “She told me she wanted to go home. She said she does not care if she would go back alive or dead for as long as she would be able to go home,” Martillan said.
Martillan said they went from one government office to another, trying to seek help. But they would always end up outside the gate of the Department Foreign Affairs office in Pasay City, where she and her mother would be told that the process of repatriation is “not easy.”
In fact, they managed to secure an endorsement letter from the Presidential Action Center in Malacañang last week. But, apparently, it held nothing of importance to how Guinto’s fate would progress. She is still stranded in Saudi Arabia.
Oscar Cuevo, 48, said he could not believe that he would be among the stranded Filipinos in Saudi Arabia despite decades of experience of working abroad. It was in 1986 when he first left the country to work in Saudi Arabia. After that, he worked in Dubai, Brunei and in the United Arab Emirates.
In 2004, Cuervo returned to Saudi Arabia to work at the Al Swayeh, a construction company.
“All my papers were processed legally. But on 2011, we started to have problems because of the Saudization policy,” he told Bulatlat.com.
The Nitaqat Scheme or more commonly known as the Saudization Policy was first announced in 2011. Migrant rights group said this is the Saudi Arabia government’s response to the growing unemployment among its own citizens. Under this scheme, companies are required to hire Saudi nationals who should comprise at least 10 percent of their workforce.
This has brought problems to their company because their workforce of about 6,000 is comprised mainly of migrant workers, Cuervo said. Al Swayeh mostly relies on government projects, he added, but the company’s bids were rejected because of its failure to comply with the Saudization policy.
“Our company could no longer renew and pay for our iqama,” Cuervo said, adding that soon, their company stopped paying their salaries. Because of this, Cuervo and his fellow Filipino workers filed their request for repatriation before the Philippine consulate in Jeddah.
Cuervo said they filed their request on Sept. 2012. He was repatriated on Jan. 6, 2013. About 12 of his fellow Filipinos who filed their request for repatriation are still there, waiting for their schedule. Though he is already back in the Philippines, he goes from one government office to another to help his former co-workers in their repatriation.
“There are so many stranded Filipinos there. Some have been waiting for their repatriation for nearly 20 years. Embassy officials said they could not secure exit visas for them because they need to find their former employers first for their clearance. But they could not find them,” Cuervo said.
Call to Aquino
Because of the ongoing crackdown on undocumented migrant workers in Saudi Arabia, Monterona said, more Filipinos are requesting to be repatriated. “A lot of them are afraid and worried,” he said during the protest action.
“They just want to be repatriated and be with their families. They went to the Philippine consulate several times. But they were also repeatedly told that the government does not have a repatriation program,” Monterona said.
Migrante International, in its statement, said that the number of stranded Filipinos camping outside the Philippine consulate in Jeddah has surged to 2,350.
Since the crackdown began, the repatriation of other nationalities such as those from Yemen and Pakistan has been continuing. Garry Martinez, chairperson of Migrante International and second nominee of Migrante Partylist, said their group has been calling for the speedy, urgent response of the Philippine government, especially because they have received reports of human rights violations being committed and criminal cases being filed against undocumented workers.
“What is the Philippine government waiting for?” Martinez said.
Though the Saudi government has issued a three-month reprieve on the crackdown due to pressures from the international community, Martinez said it would resume on June 9.
“We fear that if the Philippine government fails to act quickly in assisting and repatriating our OFWs, they will be subjected to harsher and more stringent crackdowns and human rights violations by Saudi authorities,” Martinez said.