Filipino Workers In Saudi To Hold Hunger Strike

MANILA – A “modern-day slave trader,” that is how President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino comes across now to overseas Filipino workers and their families. The OFW situation has noticeably deteriorated under Aquino’s implementation of a “more intensified, aggressive and sophisticated labor export policy,” said Garry Martinez, chairman of Migrante International, an alliance of migrant Filipino workers.

During Aquino’s first two years in office, many OFWs suffered labor rights abuses and violations after being deployed by duly-licensed recruitment agencies. Migrante International said more OFWs are coming to their office complaining of government neglect as they lodge cases of overcharging, illegal recruitment, contract substitution, abuse, human trafficking and foul play to government offices. As if these are not enough, the number of OFWs in jail and on death row also continues to increase under Aquino.

“Because of the Aquino administration’s desperation to further seek job markets abroad to rescue a sinking economy, it continues to intensify its labor export program at the expense of the rights and welfare of OFWs,” Martinez said.

OFW protests, hunger strike

Last Tuesday (July 17), families of at least 180 overseas Filipino workers in Saudi Arabia and migrants’ rights advocacy group Migrante International held a picket in front of the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA). They disclosed plans of holding a hunger strike starting July 30, to be participated in by the 180 OFWs who filed complaints in Saudi Arabia and their family members in the Philippines.

Their families in the Philippines have long called on the POEA and the Aquino administration to immediately repatriate their relatives in Saudi Arabia who, they say, are all victims of abusive employers and illegal recruiters.

Because of what happened to their kin abroad, their families in the Philippines asked Aquino to suspend the licenses of and ban the recruitment agencies who had brought their family members to such work conditions in Saudi Arabia.

They asked also for a refund of the placement fees they had paid, and, in the light of the difficulties their family members are suffering in Saudi Arabia, they demand financial assistance from the government.

The OFWs have lodged verified complaints that they were maltreated, denied their wages and subjected to various other labor rights violations by their respective employers. Of the 180, more than half or 104 came from the Al Swayeh company, 40 are cleaners from Zaharan company, 17 work under the Al Naseeb Establishment and 19 OFWs from Al Jhouf company, and other individual repatriation cases.

They were all deployed to Saudi Arabia by recruitment agencies licensed by the POEA, namely, Saveway International Man Power, Osims Oriental Skills International Manpower, RPF Business Management & Consultancy Inc, Irsal Employment Services Inc., GBMLT Manpower Services Inc., Nawras Manpower Services Inc. (formerly Nawras Manpower Services), Al Assal Manpower Inc., Matawi, and other still unidentified agencies.

Aquino administration, conduit of OFW suffering

According to Migrante International, the protesting OFWs in Saudi Arabia were all victims of contract substitution, non-payment of salaries for 10 months to over one year, underpayment of salaries and non-renewal of expired contracts, residence permits and medical insurances. All have filed cases at the Ministry of Labor in Saudi Arabia, which, until now, are awaiting decision.

Garry Martinez, Migrante International chairman, explained that the OFWs sought the help of Migrante-Middle East after the Philippine Embassy failed to attend to their complaints.

“The OFWs, along with other maltreated migrant workers of other nationalities, held strikes and ‘stop-work protests’ to pressure their companies. They appealed to the Philippine embassy for help, but they were left to fend for themselves. Eventually, they ran out of food and resources,” Martinez said.

In an appeal addressed to Migrante, the OFWs said, “Since we wrote the (Philippine) embassy in October 2011, we have yet to receive a response. On January 15 this year, we were attacked by unknown individuals and fired upon. That day we informed Ambassador Ezzedin H. Tago about what happened. The following morning, Consul Reyes arrived and promised that he would help us return to the Philippines. It has been months, but we’re still here and we’ve received no assistance.”

In the same letter, the OFWs reported that last February 13, they were told to go to a certain Sebastian Rodrigo and Sami Ampang in the Philippine Labor Office in Saudi Arabia to claim their unpaid wages. But when they got there, the two officials told the OFWs that they could do nothing to help them.

Because of the OFWs’ sustained protests, the companies relented and later gave some OFWs their unpaid wages.

But the OFWs still need assistance in coming home. Toward this end though, the Philippine embassy and the OFWs’ respective agencies have not yet processed their exit clearances or booked their tickets.

Suffering, neglected in Saudi Arabia

Evelyn Bañez, 35 and Aileen Cabrera, 37, are wives of distressed OFWs in Saudi Arabia. Bañez’s husband Danilo, 44, and Cabrera’s husband Angelito, 44 are among the 180 OFWs in Saudi Arabia asking for immediate repatriation.

Danilo finished his contract with the Al-Swayeh Company last March 2011. He refused to renew the contract, citing labor malpractices. Since the new management took over in 2009, their salaries got delayed and their Iqama or residence IDs were not renewed by the company.

“They can’t go out and look for another job because their Iqamas are expired. They will be jailed if the Saudi police got to them,” Bañez said.

Cabrera said her husband’s foreign co-workers have returned home. “Why are Filipino OFWs still stranded in Saudi? Some of my husband’s co-workers have gone back to their home countries— maybe their governments are working for their citizens. We hope our government does the same.”

Cabrera said Filipino OFWs stranded in Saudi Arabia are suffering from hunger and many are getting sick. “Their situation is very difficult there. It is scorching hot in their barracks, the lights are cut off by afternoon and they have no water.”

The Philippine Overseas Labor Office (Polo) in Saudi told the OFWs they will be given a temporary working permit. “But they are not asking for a temporary working permit, they want to come home,” Cabrera said.

Danilo and Angelito, together with their fellow OFWs, asked help from Ambassador Ezzedin Tago to no avail. “He lives up to his name: whenever OFWs come to talk to Ambassador Tago (tago in Filipino means hide), he never shows up. He just sends a representative to tell them they could do nothing because the company involved is powerful. They were told to just wait. But until when would they wait?”

“OFWs fund the OWWA, why can’t the government use it?” Bañez asked.

Bañez has two children, both still studying. Cabrera has three. They live now only through the help of relatives.

More OFWs in distress in the last two years

Joel Lacandula, 31, also asks for help to be repatriated because he has not received his salary since February of this year. He went to Saudi Arabia more than a year before to work as welder inspector. “But when he arrived in Saudi, he was assigned to a different employer. His salary was always delayed until they stopped paying him altogether last February,” Ruth Lacandula, Joel’s sister, said in an interview with Bulatlat.com.

Ruth said his brother Joel tried to look for another job in Saudi Arabia but his employer forbade him to leave. “Now he’s stuck there together with 10 other OFWs. They asked help from OWWA (Overseas Workers Welfare Administration) but he was only scammed.”

Ruth said Joel talked to a Polo official named Allen Arroyo who told him to pay 10,000SR (P110,000 or $2,558) because he did not finish his contract. “We raised that money. All the money he earned there, plus donations, plus contributions from relatives, and what my brother was able to raise through solicitations, all went to pay that amount. His agency only gave 3,000SR (P33,000 or $776) but still, my brother was not repatriated.”

After getting 10,000SR, Arroyo could not be found. “When my brother handed him the 10,000SR, the man and his promised visa is nowhere to be seen.”

Migrante International learned that Arroyo is a Polo-OWWA official indeed. The group promised to do necessary steps to reprimand the official.

Angelina Pandongan, 59, also appealed to the government for the immediate repatriation of his son Allan who is in Doha, Qatar. “He called me crying, asking me to get help so he can go home. He said he can leave without his salary, he just wanted to come home immediately,” Pandongan told Bulatlat.com

Allan arrived in Qatar more than two years ago on March 18, 2010 to work as a dock man. But his salary was delayed until the company stopped paying their salaries altogether. Allan has one child; Pandongan said Allan’s wife and their child are being helped by his mother-in-law.

Testament of failed promises

“The situation of OFWs has deteriorated despite Aquino’s declarations of improved welfare and services for them,” Martinez of Migrante noted. He said this deterioration is a testament of Aquino’s failed promises.

Martinez blamed the government’s indifference to the plight of OFWs, as manifested by the record-high rise in the number of cases that Migrante has handled in the past two years.

“From 1,500 cases yearly before Aquino assumed power in 2010, the number of cases we have documented and facilitated shot up to 4,500 by the end of 2011. This does not yet include cases handled independently by our chapters abroad,” he said.

He added that for the first half of 2012, the number of cases his group handled has reached an average of 35 to 40 a month. Cases they process have “broadened in scope and widened in range,” he said.

“Unlike before when majority of our cases were similar in nature, we are handling today a wider scope of cases ranging from overcharging to illegal recruitment to wide-scale human trafficking and different facets of government neglect. More OFWs have also become victims of maltreatment, abuse, labor violations and foul play compared to experiences in past years,” Martinez said.

The migrant leader also said there was a significant rise in the number of cases of jailed OFWs and OFWs on death row in the past two years.

“For the first time in history, four of our compatriots were executed abroad in just two years. It’s incredible, it’s horrible,” Martinez said.

Determined to press their case

Evelyn Casul, 25, came from Dubai last April 30, 2012. As a domestic helper, she was maltreated by her employer, sexually abused by her agent and by her employer’s brother, and she was not paid three months of her salary.

“I start work at 4 a.m. I clean two houses and take care of three children ages six and four years old and one baby who is nine months old. I cook and do the laundry. When I cannot work because I feel bad, my male employer would beat me up,” Casul said.

She did not ask for help from the Polo-Owwa because she did not know what to do. She asked her agency to just send her back home but the agency asked for P85,000 ($1976) as payment for her deployment in Dubai.

She did not ask help from her parents because she did not want to bring them problems. But she cannot take her abusive employer anymore. “I called my parents for help. They asked help from the POEA (Philippine Overseas Employment Agency), the DFA (Department of Foreign Affairs) and from our municipality in Zambales.”

But before she could go home, her employer’s brother raped her and so did her agent. Casul is a single parent with two children. She went home without money.

Her case is now with the National Labor Relations Commission. But Casul observed that the arbiter seems biased toward the agency. “He told me to just accept the P30,000 ($697) because nothing will come out of the case. I refused. I am determined to fight.”

“It was difficult (what I have gone through abroad), but I’m still okay. I can still carry on, for my children’s sake,” Casul said forcing a smile in her face.

“These testimonies of relatives of OFWs only showed how justice eludes our OFWs. It has been two years since Aquino took power but the situation of the OFWs are not getting any better,” Martinez of MIgrante International said.

Meanwhile, Gil De Leon, father of Terril Atienza appealed to the government to act on her daughter’s case. “The autopsy from Mongolia arrived in the Philippines a month ago without our knowledge. The Chinese embassy took it back because there is a ‘discrepancy.’ We were also told the Chinese embassy took a copy of the autopsy report by the NBI (National Bureau of Investigation). Why? So they can compare reports?”

De Leon is saddened by the fact that the government is still not doing anything a year after Terril’s death.

“We called on Aquino to please act on our daughter’s case. We also appealed to the DFA to not cover-up the autopsy report. We know that our opponent here is powerful but justice should be served. We hope Aquino will take us to indeed to a righteous path,” De Leon said.

The families of the 180 OFWs will also be joining the People’s State of the Nation Address (SONA) protests on July 23. (Bulatlat.com)

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