When labor problems become ‘police cases’

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Atty. Dodo Dulay

Atty. Dodo Dulay

ONE of the more common “request for assistance” (RA) that the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) receives on a daily basis is a plea from a parent, sibling or relative to bring home (or repatriate) an overseas Filipino worker (OFW). Sometimes, it is our kabayan OFWs themselves, especially those working as domestic workers, who ask to be brought home.

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The reasons given for wanting to be repatriated are varied. Some complain that they are not being given the salary or benefits agreed upon in their contract or that they’re made to work beyond the agreed working hours without any overtime pay. In the case of domestic workers, many of the complaints revolve around not being fed properly or not being given enough rest by their employers. In short, the grievances usually (and initially) involve labor and employment issues.

So how are these matters dealt with, particularly in the Middle East?

Let’s take the case of “Rafael” who was deployed as a gypsum installer in Saudi Arabia. He complained that he was suffering from lower back pains because he was not given the agreed rest days by his employer. Rafael also grumbled that he was not being paid the salary stipulated in his contract.

Being a labor and employment matter, Rafael’s complaint will be handled by the Philippine Overseas Labor Office (POLO) in the Philippine Embassy/Consulate. The POLO is headed by a labor attaché, and is supported by OWWA’s welfare officers, administrative staff, and “local hires” (usually Filipino residents in the Middle East hired as interpreters or drivers).

The initial step for POLO-OWWA officers is to try and settle Rafael’s problem with his employer amicably. This is done through mediation or conciliation, with DOLE’s labor attaché or OWWA’s welfare officer calling or writing the employer to discuss the worker’s complaint, or, if necessary, visiting the employer to discuss the worker’s complaint and find a mutually acceptable solution. You’d be surprised at the number of labor grievances resolved through conciliation, and without resorting to repatriation.

If the OFW and the employer are unable to agree, the worker can then file a complaint with Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Labor. However, complaining workers are prohibited from working for another employer because under the “kafala” (or sponsorship) system in the Middle East, foreign workers can enter, work and leave the country only with the permission of their sponsor-employer.

Nevertheless, some of our more enterprising kabayan try to find work with another employer (or “sideline”) knowing that it is illegal and could result in jail time and hefty fines if they’re caught. Other OFWs, perhaps due to impatience, impulsiveness or a lack of understanding of the proper procedure, just abandon their job or leave their workplace without the knowledge or permission of their employer.

Unfortunately, once the employer reports the matter to the Jawazat (the immigration office), the absconding OFW will be declared “huroob” (or absent/runaway from work), which is a serious offense in the Middle East.

Unlike construction workers in the Middle East, Filipino domestic workers are not covered by labor laws since they are considered to be unskilled laborers. Their problems, however, are very similar, as illustrated by the experience of “Gina.”

Gina was deployed as a domestic worker in Saudi Arabia. In her contract, she was to work only in one house for a family of four. Instead, she found herself catering to the needs of nine family members, with little rest and not enough food. Worse, she was made to clean not just her employer’s house—which is really more of a mansion by Philippine standards – but also two other houses owned by her employer’s relatives. Unable to bear the workload any longer, Gina decided to “run away” from her employer, escaping through the window while her employer’s family was asleep.

Gina may have escaped unscathed but she did not get away scot-free. It is not unheard of in the Middle East for “huroob” domestic workers to be accused by their employers of theft as punishment for running away. Moreover, if huroob workers are caught by police, they are compelled to stay in jail/deportation center while awaiting their sponsor’s consent for the issuance of an exit visa.

These stories are some examples of how simple labor or employment issues of OFWs can ripen into so-called “police cases,” requiring not only legal assistance but also negotiations with foreign officials/offices.

There are other cases where the Filipino domestic worker complains about being physically abused or sexually harassed/assaulted and ask to be rescued from her workplace, which also automatically converts the complaint into a “police case” since the rescue or removal of the worker can only be done with the assistance of police officials.

When this happens, the “police case” is handed over to the “Assistance to Nationals” section of the Philippine Embassy or consulate because under the RA 8042, it is the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) which is responsible for making “representation[s]with the foreign authority concerned to protect the rights of migrant workers…” and is “primarily responsible for [providing]all legal assistance services to…Filipino migrant workers…” through the DFA’s Office of the Undersecretary for Migrant Workers’ Affairs.

The DFA, in turn, will have to work through the bureaucratic maze of the foreign/host country, which in the Middle East is somewhat of a nightmare. This “police case” scenario explains why oftentimes, the worker cannot be rescued or repatriated as quickly as he or his family would want.

With millions of OFWs relying on the DFA for help, I sincerely wish Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano all the best in his new job. I’m sure Secretary Alan is more than up to the task.

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