By JANESS ANN J. ELLAO
MANILA – “We try to laugh it off.”
This is how overseas Filipino worker Rolando Matias described their situation now in a housing facility owned by their previous employer in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. They have been living there since 2016, surviving on scant donations and whatever menial jobs they can get.
Nevertheless, he still manages to smile during an online interview with Bulatlat. Aside from the horrors they have to deal with in a foreign country, they also have to endure the Philippine government that has yet to act firmly on their case.
Matias, 61, is one of the more than 300 migrant workers abandoned by their metal works employer in 2016. They are also among the thousands of OFWs stranded in Saudi Arabia.
Migrante – Kingdom of Saudi Arabia estimates there are about 24,000 distressed Filipinos there, with 9,000 of them residing in various migrant shelters and have availed of the government’s repatriation program. Majority of them are still hoping to get a new job rather than return to the Philippines that is faced with joblessness and a raging pandemic.
“We never expected this fate to fall upon us,” Matias said.
Stranded for years now
In 2016, Matias was surprised to find themselves abandoned by their employer after working for the last 18 years.
He and 300 other migrant workers filed a labor dispute case and eventually won. A Saudi labor court ordered their employers to sell their properties to pay off labor claims by the abandoned workers. The sale, however, was not enough to compensate all of them.
Other migrant workers who were not compensated eventually gave up and returned to their respective countries empty-handed. Matias and nine other Filipinos, however, continued to live in their previous employers’ housing facility, following the Saudi labor court’s order.
They hope that, in time, they will get their claims amounting to 2.3 million Riyals ($613,000) for all 10 of them before availing the repatriation program of the Philippine government. To press for their claims, they said that the Philippine government must provide them a lawyer to file an appeal before the Saudi labor court.
Since the start of their case, 50-year-old Alan Atilan, also a colleague of Matias stranded in their former employer’s housing facility, said that the Philippine government has only provided them with a translator.
The 10 Filipinos could no longer approach the Saudi government’s Ministry of Justice for updates on their case because their respective iqama or residence permits have already expired. Atilan said that they need to provide their iqama before they can proceed with online transactions with Saudi government, which is part of the new normal amid the pandemic.
Sometime in September 2020, they were supposed to file an appeal before the Saudi labor court through the lawyers that used to represent them. After a series of meetings, however, they were told that there is a “conflict” and that they could no longer proceed with their appeal.
“Perhaps (Labor Secretary Silvestre) Bello can hear us? We cannot go home without our claims. What would happen to us?” Atilan asked.
Odd jobs and homelessness
Some of the distressed OFWs in Saudi are forced to do odd jobs to buy food and other essentials. But because this is illegal, they are sometimes tricked into doing work without pay because employers know they cannot file a complaint.
In Riyadh alone, Migrante – Kingdom of Saudi Arabia chairperson Marlon Gatdula said that they have documented no less than 90 homeless Filipinos. They beg and live on the streets because finding temporary shelters even just for a night has become difficult due to the pandemic and the consequent restrictions on mobility.
Gatdula said that most lost their jobs due to the strict implementation of the Saudization Policy which directs employers to prioritize the hiring of Saudi nationals over migrant workers.
Meanwhile, distressed OFWs are not just suffering abroad. Their families in the Philippines are mired in debt and their children are forced to drop out of school.
Matias said that all they see now in their former employer’s housing facility are ceilings and walls. On most days, their spirits are dampened. Still, they hope to be reunited with their families someday.