THE feared crackdown by the Saudi government against illegal overseas Filipino workers (OFW) was deferred for 120 days, or until November 3, to allow them either to legalize their stay in the kingdom or to seek repatriation.
The Saudization law, which prioritizes the employment of Saudi nationals over foreigners, was to take effect on July 3 but the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) said on Tuesday that they received official word from the oil-rich kingdom regarding its decision to grant the extension of the deadline sought by the Philippines and several other nations.
Aside from the Philippines, Indonesia, Bangladesh and Pakistan also have thousands of illegal workers in Saudi Arabia.
The kingdom is home to more than one million OFWs, majority of whom are already overstaying. Those who shifted to other jobs are also at risk of violating the new immigration law.
Some 10,000 Filipinos have originally asked to be repatriated following the enactment of the new law. The figure decreased, however, after the government decided to allow the regularization of the stay of those who have existing working visas.
“Undocumented Filipinos are advised to take advantage of this extension and immediately proceed to concerned Saudi government agencies or to the seek assistance of our embassy and consulate in Saudi Arabia for their repatriation or the regularization of their statuses,” said Foreign Affairs spokesman Raul Hernandez.
“We also advise our kababayans to cooperate with our embassy or consulate in order to make repatriation and regularization efficient. We are hoping everybody will cooperate and the government will be able to expedite the requests,” he added.
The Foreign Affairs official said the Philippine missions in Saudi Arabia are “undermanned and [have]limited capacity,” which might explain the “slow” repatriation of distressed Filipinos.
The Philippine government has repeatedly asked the Saudi government to extend the deadline since more than 300 Filipinos are still camped outside the Philippine mission in Jeddah.
Some 226 women and children are still seeking shelter in the consulate-provided facilities, Hernandez said.
The Philippine government, since the Filipinos started camping outside the consulate in Jeddah and the embassy in Riyadh by mid-April, already repatriated some 800—412 from Riyadh eastern region and 388 from Jeddah—distressed Filipino workers.
On Tuesday, some 25 Filipinos arrived in Manila from Riyadh while 54 undocumented Filipinos also arrived during the weekend.
For their part, the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) and Overseas Workers’ Welfare Administration (OWWA) welcomed the extension given by the Saudi government.
“On behalf of our OFWs in Saudi Arabia, I thank the King and his government for the extension of the deadline which will provide a reprieve on the part of the workers and the Philippine Overseas Labor Office for the processing of the voluminous worker documents,” Labor Secretary Rosalinda Baldoz said.
“We welcome the extension with joy, relief and great thanks to the Saudi government. Our OFWs will have more time to work on the correction of their status,” Welfare chief Carmelita Dimzon echoed.
The two officials issued the statements after Philippine Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Ezzedin Tago informed the DFA that King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz, Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, has ordered an extension of the correction grace period until the end of the current Islamic year, which falls on November 3.
Baldoz also instructed labor attachès in Saudi Arabia Alejandro Padaen and Adam Musa to continuously cooperate with Philippine Embassy in Riyadh and the Philippine Consulate General in Jeddah in assisting the OFWs to get their employment documents to legalize their stay in the Kingdom.
“I have also directed them to take advantage of the coming Ramadan break to meet with our workers in the Filipino community and inform them, particularly the illegal workers, of the steps they need to take to legalize their stay by availing of the extension, and assist them find employers so that after the Ramadan, their documents could already be processed,” the DOLE head explained.
Meanwhile, Dimzon appealed to the OFWs in the Middle East to take advantage of the extension to arrange all the documents and requirements to be legally working in the Kingdom.
“[We appeal to the OFWs] to continue working on their papers and not to take their time baka before they know it, it’s the deadline again,” the OWWA official pointed out.
She also added that in case that the worker’s repatriations are still necessary, the welfare agency is prepared to assist the returning OFWs by offering them reintegration and livelihood programs.
She included the “Balik-Pinay, Balik-Hanapbuhay” a starter kit worth P10,000 offered to returning OFWs, along with home-based livelihood business development and skills training.
Likewise, Vice President Jejomar Binay thanked Saudi King Abdullah “for once again showing his kindness and compassion in allowing the extension.”
Reports said the announcement of the extension was made by the Deputy Labor Minister of Saudi Arabia.
“We also join the appeal to the Saudi government to address the urgent concerns raised by Saudi companies and employers on the need to expedite the processing of documents of affected workers,” Binay said.
“The extension definitely eases the anxieties of thousands of kababayans and their families. Once again, I appeal to our kababayans to utilize this additional time given them to submit all the needed requirements to the Philippine Embassy,” he added.
The Vice President and the Foreign Affairs department said the Philippine missions in Saudi Arabia will continue to process the documents needed by the distressed Filipinos to correct their statuses or repatriate them back to the Philippines.
Meanwhile, the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) urged Saudi Arabia to abolish its migrant worker sponsorship system and allow workers who are victims of abuse to easily change their jobs.
HRW earlier feared that thousands of migrant workers will be at risk of detention and deportation once the deadline for workers to regularize their residency and employment status in the kingdom have expired.
The human rights groups added that over nine million migrant workers in Saudi Arabia—more than half the work force—fill manual, clerical, and service jobs.
Many suffer multiple abuses and labor exploitation, sometimes amounting to slavery-like conditions.
“Saudi Arabia should get serious about regularizing the status of its workers and do away with an abusive labor system that forces migrants into illegal employment,” Joe Stork, HRW deputy Middle East director, said in a statement released also on Tuesday.
“Migrant workers trapped in miserable job conditions or fleeing abusive situations should be able to change jobs without employer permission or government delay,” he added.
In late March, Saudi authorities carried out unprecedented raids on businesses and set up checkpoints across the country to find and detain workers who did not have required documentation or who were not working for their legal employers.
Saudi authorities ended the crackdown in early April, declaring a limited “grace period” for workers to correct their status and documentation.
On May 10, the Ministries of Interior and Labor announced an “amnesty” for all workers who had violated residency and labor rules before April 6, provided that the workers bring themselves into compliance with the law by July 3.
The kafala, or sponsorship system, ties migrant workers’ residency permits to “sponsoring” employers, whose written consent is required for workers to change employers or leave the country. Employers often abuse this power in violation of Saudi law to confiscate passports, withhold wages, and force migrants to work against their will or on exploitative terms.
According to the HRW, thousands of workers in Saudi Arabia work illegally under the so-called “free visa” arrangement, with Saudis posing as sponsoring employers and importing workers to staff businesses that do not exist.
Workers who enter Saudi Arabia under this scheme work outside the regulatory system for real companies and businesses that are happy to avoid any official scrutiny while the worker pays regular “fees” to the free-visa “sponsor” to renew residency and work permits.
In April 2012, the Labor Ministry proposed abolishing the kafala system by transferring immigration sponsorship to newly created recruitment and placement agencies, but later decided to retain the current system.
To tackle kafala-related abuses, Saudi Arabia needs to amend its Residency Law so that a migrant worker no longer requires a sponsor’s consent to change jobs or leave the country, HRW said.
The human rights group further noted that some 1.5 million of the migrant domestic workers remain entirely excluded from the 2005 Labor Law and thus have no legal protections even if they work for a legal sponsor.
In a 2008 report on the conditions of migrant domestic workers in Saudi Arabia, HRW documented a range of abuses including non-payment of salaries, forced confinement, food deprivation, excessive workload, and instances of severe psychological, physical, and sexual abuse.
In 2011 and 2012, the Philippines, Indonesia, Nepal, and Kenya imposed restrictions on their citizens, barring them from migrating to Saudi Arabia for domestic work. The Philippines resumed migration in October 2012 after Saudi authorities agreed on a $400 per month minimum wage but with only a few other legal protections.
On May 19, the Philippines and Saudi Arabia announced a bilateral agreement to cooperate on labor issues—the first such agreement Saudi Arabia has signed.
Earlier, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah ordered a three-month delay to a crackdown on migrant workers which has led to thousands of deportations, to give foreigners in the kingdom a chance to sort out their papers.
The crackdown is part of labor market reforms aimed at putting more Saudi nationals into private sector jobs.
Under Saudi law, expatriates have to be sponsored by their employer, but many switch jobs without transferring their residency papers. crackdown on OFWs