CONTROVERSY over the treatment of overseas Filipino workers in Middle Eastern countries figured again prominently in news headlines the past few days.
The latest episode in this seemingly never-ending drama involved the rescue of allegedly abused OFWs by Philippine embassy officials in Kuwait, which the Gulf state found to be a violation of its sovereignty, leading to fractured bilateral ties and an uncertain Philippine labor policy.
Whether or not Kuwait’s diplomatic self-awareness should take precedence over the DFA’s responsibility to look after the welfare and well-being of our citizens overseas is probably debatable, but we will defer to the judgment of our government as to the appropriate response to the issue. The incident was, after all, simply another manifestation of a widespread problem that our government has been grappling with for years.
There are more than 2 million OFWs working in Middle Eastern countries, with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait accounting for most of them. While the statistics are somewhat vague, information that can be gleaned from the data provided by the Overseas Worker’s Welfare Administration and the Philippine Statistics Authority suggests that as many as 20 to 25 percent of those OFWs are employed as domestic helpers.
Not all domestic helpers in the Middle East are employed in dangerous, near-slavery circumstances; it would, of course, be unfair to paint all the families who employ our OFWs with the same uncomplimentary brush, because there are many who are appreciative and caring employers. Unfortunately, there are many who are not. Distressing stories of OFWs being physically, emotionally and sexually abused, assaulted, traded back and forth between households like slaves, and even murdered, are far too common.
For example, of the estimated 10,000 Filipinos overstaying their visas in Kuwait, according to Philippine Ambassador Renato Pedro Villa, about 8,000 are believed to be domestic helpers claiming abuse at the hands of their employers. There are similar groups, ranging in size from several hundred to several thousand distressed OFWs, in the other countries in the region as well.
That is why the government should urgently consider all the ways available to us to improve and ensure the safety and working conditions of Filipino domestic helpers in the Middle East. For instance, Senator Cynthia Villar suggested at a meeting of recruitment agencies earlier this week that “live-in” domestic helper arrangements be prohibited. Given that the vast majority of abuse complaints among OFWs in the region were from domestic helpers who lived with their employers, then it makes sense to look into the possibility of this arrangement or provision for separate housing for the domestic helpers to keep them safe.
With domestic helpers living outside their employers’ homes, keeping tabs on their whereabouts and well-being will be much easier for their families and responsible agencies. The proposal is not as disruptive as the usual solution of imposing a “deployment ban” on certain types of workers or to certain places, which has limited effectiveness; determined OFWs desperate for work can be quite crafty in evading such bans. Villar’s proposal, on the other hand, requires a relatively minor adjustment, and is more likely to be accepted by OFWs, hiring agencies, and host countries.
Although it is obviously not a magic spell that will instantly render OFW abuse a thing of the past, this proposal may be a practical measure that certainly should be tried.