“This is already a crisis. How does this government define a crisis? Do OFWs need to die of hunger first?”
By JANESS ANN J. ELLAO
MANILA – A group of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) warned the Philippine government not to downplay imminent threats of mass layoffs in Saudi Arabia due to the ongoing crisis in one of the top destinations for Filipinos leaving to work abroad.
Migrante Partylist first nominee Garry Martinez said the Philippine government has been trying to downplay the “big crisis in our midst.”
“This is already a crisis. How does this government define a crisis? Do OFWs need to die of hunger first?” Martinez quipped at the press conference today, Feb. 17.
In its earlier pronouncements, the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) said that job losses so far are negligible and nearly nonexistent.
Members of Migrante-Kingdom of Saudi Arabia who have conducted an initial survey on the ground said there are currently 20,000 Filipino migrant workers in Saudi Oger Ltd., which had been affected by the crisis since last year. Another 5,000 OFWs are also set to be retrenched by the Bin Laden Co. this coming March.
Even Saudi’s national oil industry Saudi Aramco had already warned of a massive retrenchment of at least one-fourth of its total labor force due to financial cutbacks.
Overall, Migrante-KSA estimates that at least 50,000 OFWs will be affected.
Possible increase of undocumented OFWs
Martinez said thousands of OFWs in Saudi Arabia are now considered jobless in construction and industrial camps, while waiting for the resolution of labor complaints they filed before concerned government agencies there. They could not look for other jobs in Saudi Arabia because their iqamas or residency permits are tied to their existing work contracts.
If their cases would not be acted upon and with companies refusing to extend their iqamas, Martinez said, there might soon be an increase in undocumented OFWs in Saudi and the return of the so-called “tent cities.”
“This is not the time for ‘wait and see.’ This is clearly a crisis that must be acted upon,” Martinez said. He added that the Philippine government must ensure that OFWs will get their end-benefits before they are repatriated, unless, the Philippine government will be resolute enough to go after Saudi employers even after repatriating the OFWs.
Rodel Perciana, an OFW from Saudi who was retrenched from his construction company in December 2015, said he was told that the company was downsizing because it does not have any more infrastructure projects.
Perciana, an electrician-foreman, returned to the country on Dec. 9, 2015, along with more than 50 others, including engineers.
Apart from the ongoing economic crisis, Filipino migrant workers also faced threats earlier this year with the worsening rift between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The Department of Foreign Affairs was urged to issue at least an Alert Level 1.
OFWs working in other industries are affected by the crisis as well.
Since Saudi Arabia’s 100 billion budget deficit in 2015, the government has been scaling down its infrastructure projects and imposing various austerity measures. Migrante KSA spokesperson Gilbert Saludo said via Skype that at least 90 percent of Saudi’s public funds come from profits from the oil industry.
As a result, Saludo said, most government infrastructure projects are just awaiting completion or are being delayed. He added that taxes are also being heavily imposed on Saudi nationals. He said that prices of goods and services, even oil products, have been soaring in Saudi as well.
Migrant workers are also facing yet another challenge with the imposition of the Nitaqat scheme or the Saudization policy, which requires companies to ensure that 24 to 30 percent of their workforce are Saudi nationals, according to Saludo.
Create jobs locally
With this predicament, Martinez renewed the call for the Philippine government to generate decent-paying jobs in the country.
“I was once an OFW. And if there is a decent-paying job here, we will choose to work and live here,” he said.
Martinez said the problems confronting OFWs in Saudi demonstrate how the labor export policy is not sustainable. He added that the crisis will soon be felt here in the country as OFWs would fail to send their loved ones the much-needed remittances.
So far, he said, the Philippine government has no concrete plans on how to reintegrate OFWs facing mass layoffs from Saudi Arabia. The country’s current minimum wage is a far cry from the salary they are receiving abroad.
“Why did they leave in the first place?” Martinez noted.