IMAGINE this: you are the father and breadwinner not just of one family but a long, extended one that reaches up to nieces and nephews and elders. Because of a stable job in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, that role was sustainable for years. You were the tall, leafy tree that gave shade to the weak and jobless in your clan. Your branches extend far and wide, offering your wife and children a financial nest for them to huddle in.
And now, the sun refuses to shine. Darkness has set in. Your branches have sagged. The nest is about to fall. In Saudi Arabia, we are not talking about one or two trees, but of thousands. We have a forest of grown men, calloused by their experiences working in the desert kingdom, now prone to crying fits and depression. One of these workers committed suicide. At 5:30 a.m. last Feb. 29, a Filipino welder hanged himself inside the Building Materials Trading Co., a few steps away from the company’s accommodations.
Saudi Oger Ltd is a huge construction and maintenance company that is home to thousands of workers. Last year, even before the oil price collapse, the company suffered tremendous losses due to alleged mismanagement and, some say, corruption by some of its foreign executives. As a result, thousands of its foreign workers remain stranded, unable to come home due to unpaid wages and non-collection of their end-of-service benefits, which can be a substantial sum depending on a worker’s length of time in the company.
Based on the records of the Philippine Overseas Labor Office (POLO), a total of 8,757 overseas Filipino workers have job contracts with Saudi Oger Ltd. In Jeddah, the company has 1,407 Filipinos working in its construction division and another 1,667 OFWs in the maintenance division. The worker who committed suicide was assigned at the Oger’s Al Qadisiya Camp, in Riyadh.
In Jeddah, the company had recently shut down the mess hall where foreign workers went to eat. Our own workers continue to rely on food donations from Filipino community groups and embassy personnel to sustain their physical strength. Roles have become reversed, with some families sending what they have to their loved ones working for Saudi Oger Ltd.
Our workers cannot leave their accommodations because their residence permits known as “Iqama” have expired. Only their employers can renew the expired permits. This would entail enormous costs given the immigration penalties involved per worker. What would happen to these workers if caught outside their accommodations? Jail time.
The expiration of their “Iqama” also complicates other matters, such as inability to call home because retail outlets look for these permits before selling SIM cards or mobile-phone credits. Their lack of mobility due to lack of a valid permit also prevents these Filipinos from physically going to the nearest embassy or consulate to seek help.
Why can’t our workers just leave Saudi Arabia? First, they need to have valid exit clearances to be able to leave the kingdom, which only Saudi Oger’s management can provide. Some of our workers have resigned from their jobs and filed for their exit clearances but the company took no action, hence their dire situation as stranded workers.
According to one of these workers, all employees from skilled workers up to managerial positions have failed to receive their wages for about four months now, or even eight months or more for others.
Crime has risen inside the workers’ accommodations and company premises. Company cars were overturned, housing units burned to the ground, and pickets have continued.
Last March, the Saudi Labor Ministry stopped providing its services, including social security and passport affairs, to Saudi Oger Ltd as part of its punitive measures. The ministry also formed a committee to address the issues raised by the unpaid foreign workers.
The Department of Foreign Affairs and the Department of Labor and Employment must work in tandem to help our workers from repatriation to reintegration. The fight for their rightful wages and benefits must not be given up in their desire to come home. Only through bilateral negotiations can our stranded OFWs be able to end this painful chapter in their lives. The proposal of ACTS OFW party-list for a crisis management team to be sent to Saudi Arabia is a worthy one. But even before that team can be created, nothing stops the Secretary of Foreign Affairs or the Secretary of Labor from inviting the Saudi Ambassador to discuss this problem.
Saudi Oger Ltd is not the only Saudi company that has not been paying our workers; there are others. Expectations are high that under this new government, these stranded workers would get the help that they deserve.