Filipino workers deported in ‘Saudisation’ fall-out


The Saudi government’s nitaqat or ‘Saudisation’ policy may have created jobs for Saudi citizens, but its implementation continues to bring great misery to undocumented foreign workers.


Until recently there were an estimated nine million foreign workers in Saudi Arabia, but it is thought that by the end of this year two million of them will have been expelled.

Although Yemeni, Indian and, in particular, Ethiopian workers are thought to have borne the brunt of the mass deportations, many Filipino workers have also been affected by arbitrary arrests, forced detention and subsequent expulsion.

Saudi Arabia’s labour ministry adopted the ‘Saudisation’ policy in August 2011, at the height of the Arab Spring, in an attempt to prevent the unrest from reaching the Kingdom.

It also aimed to address rising unemployment, which had already reached 12.5 per cent at the time.

As a result, the policy requires private companies to increase the ratio of Saudis to foreigners in their work force.

It does not, however, tackle the kafala – or sponsorship – system, which is the cause of much of the abuse suffered by foreign workers throughout the Middle East.


A migrant-dependent economy

About 10 per cent of the 97.6 million population of the Philippines live and work abroad.

It has one of the highest ratios of overseas workers in the world, and after the United States, the oil-rich kingdom of Saudi Arabia hosts the largest number of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs), with a total of 1.5 million Filipino migrant workers.

The Philippines’ first exodus of highly skilled workers and professionals such as engineers, architects, nurses and doctors began in 1973 around the start of the oil crisis.

They made a significant contribution to the record growth of the Saudi economy.

Meanwhile, the remittances of these first generation OFWs helped sending their children to schools, and improved the lives of many families.

Today, many Filipino migrants work in the medical sector and also as domestic workers.

But foreign workers from the global south have few rights in Saudi Arabia and often face horrific physical and mental abuse at the hands of their employers – even death.

Despite various promises made by the Saudi government to solve the issue, widespread human rights violations continue to be a huge problem for migrant workers.

In a recent report, Amnesty International highlighted that the crackdown on undocumented foreign workers has worsened the situation.

“One of the most vulnerable groups in the country are not protected by labour laws and are vulnerable to exploitation and abuses at the hands of private and government employers,” says the Amnesty International report.

More than 5,000 OFWs have so far been repatriated from Saudi Arabia under the nitaqat rules.

In November 2013 alone, around 600 Filipino workers were expelled from the Kingdom after spending gruesome nights in detention. Many of them were female domestic workers who are particularly vulnerable to extreme physical and psychological abuse at the hands of their employers.

Amongst them was 46-year-old Linda [not her real name]. “We were locked up in a jail crammed with different nationalities,” she told Equal Times during an interview at her home province in Santa Rosa, Laguna, south of Manila.

Linda said she ran away from her abusive employer, a gadget store owner, after suffering verbal and sometimes even physical abuse.

“I was forced to escape when my male employer tried to rape me while his wife and children were away,” said Linda.

She then took on various part-time jobs as a domestic worker until she was arrested in a market by roving inspectors last August because she was unable to produce a document proving she had a sponsor/employer.


Red tape

The Philippine’s diplomatic and labour authorities first estimated that there were 20,000 undocumented Filipino workers in Saudi Arabia who may be affected by the ‘Saudisation’ policy.

But Filipina labour secretary Rosalinda Baldoz said in a statement that there were a total of nearly 200,000 Filipino workers who actually rectified their work visa in Saudi Arabia in order to prevent arrest and forced deportation.

Roughly 1,000 of them, mostly women and children, are currently living in makeshift tents outside the Filipino consulate in Jeddah, while others are in shelters run by civic organisations. Their cases are due for processing.

The Filipino government has repeatedly appealed to the Saudi government to give a grace period for illegal foreign workers to legalise their stay, Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) spokesman Raul Hernandez told Equal Times.

Saudi Arabia’s labour ministry ultimately agreed to fix the deadline for finding a legal sponsor or employer to 4 March, 2014.

Last November, the Saudi labour ministry expanded the scope of the nitaqat, this time punishing foreigners who work extra jobs.

Filipino recruiter Loreto Soriano said one of his relatives was arrested and deported on 1 January, 2014.

“He was a housekeeper at the Ministry of Defence but he was having a side job at a vegetable market,” wrote Soriano in an email to Equal Times.

Soriano explained that working for another employer other than your sponsor is a “residency violation”, punishable by imprisonment and deportation.

The new Saudi rule aims to press charges against employers of undocumented workers, those who transport or aid undocumented migrant, and recruiters who do not report overstaying recruits.

Private companies in Saudi Arabia have even been required to report to authorities undocumented foreign workers who apply to their companies. Failing to do so carries the risk of prosecution.

In an interview with Equal Times, Labour Secretary Baldoz admitted that, despite the difficulties of living abroad as an undocumented worker, “going home is not an option” for many Filipinos who believe there are not enough good paying jobs in their home country.

Many displaced Filipino workers simply move to safer grounds in nearby Arab countries, waiting for tensions to subside before returning to their original jobs later.

Baldoz urged remaining undocumented workers in Saudi Arabia to correct their status, or “just go home.


Going home not an option

The Blas F. Ople Policy Center, a non-profit organisation that specialises in labour and migration issues, says the government should work on a more coherent and practical reintegration program for displaced OFWs in Saudi Arabia, as well as other countries such as Kuwait and Singapore.

“Clearer and more practical reintegration options will serve to encourage those violating immigration policies overseas to just come home and start anew in their homeland,” said the Ople Center in a statement.

The Filipino government argues there are enough jobs in the country, and that there is no need risking going abroad without proper work documents.

But despite her harrowing experience in Saudi Arabia, Linda says she is still looking for a job overseas in order to continue sending her children to school.

“There’s no use staying here and seeing my children go hungry,” said Linda. “I will still take my chances of working abroad but hopefully in a legal way.”