MANILA - Saudi Arabia's
decision to ban domestic helpers from the
Philippines and Indonesia beginning on July 1 came
as a bolt, and perhaps it is a retaliatory answer
to the two Southeast Asian neighbors' efforts to
secure better conditions for their workers.
Saudi Arabia has come under heavy
criticism in Indonesia following the beheading of
an Indonesian maid for murder last month that
prompted the Indonesian government to impose a
travel ban on maids to the ultra conservative
kingdom that will begin on August 1.
the case of the Philippines, the Saudi government
cited Manila's insistence on a US$400 minimum
monthly salary for maids. Saudi Arabia wants only
half of that. The Philippines also
demanded greater protection
for its women workers, which was also turned down
Foreign workers comprise about a
third of the kingdom's population. Most come from
Pakistan, India, Egypt, the Philippines and
Indonesia. They sent some $30 billion back to
their respective countries. But these foreign
workers are not protected by Saudi labor laws and
often face discrimination, human-right abuses and
unfair justice. The most prone to abuse are those
who go on a tourist visa and try to stay and find
Saudi Arabia has come
under fire recently for a series of abuses against
domestic workers, the most vulnerable of all
workers since they stay at home with their
employers. Every year thousands run away. Many of
them tell stories of unpaid salaries, long working
hours and physical, mental and sexual abuses.
Ruyati binti Sapubi was beheaded on June
18 after confessing to killing her employer,
saying that he abused her. The execution caused an
outcry in Indonesia. Saudi Arabia later apologized
for not informing Indonesia about the decision to
execute the maid.
Another Indonesian maid
had faced execution for killing her employer after
she defended herself against her boss who tried to
rape her, but she was spared. Last year, an
Indonesian maid was killed by her employers and
her body dumped on a roadside. In April, a Saudi
woman convicted of beating and torturing an
Indonesian maid had her conviction reversed on
About 1.5 million Indonesians work
in Saudi Arabia, many as domestic maids or
helpers, while around 120,000 to 150,000 of the
1.3 million Filipinos working in the kingdom are
employed as maids.
Last month the
International Labor Organization (ILO) adopted new
standards for domestic workers and set out humane
rules including reasonable work hours, weekly rest
and respect for fundamental principles and rights.
The ILO estimated that there are 53 million
domestic workers in the world, although the actual
numbers can be higher since many are unregistered.
However, few expect Middle East countries to
comply with such standards.
Philippines, reactions over the ban were subdued
and expressions of relief even came from some
quarters despite fears that the ban could impact
the already weak economy. The Philippines is
heavily dependent on remittances amid the
continued global economic slowdown.
Edwin Corrus of the influential Catholic Bishops'
Conference of the Philippines said that he
welcomed the ban on maids from the Philippines,
while Susan Ople, a former labor under-secretary,
said that the kingdom was "actually doing us a
Ople urged the Philippine
government agencies to provide a united response
to the ban and show that they are supporting the
Department of Labor and Employment's decision not
to lower the $400 minimum monthly salary per
domestic helper. However, she reiterated that the
government must maintain an open line, and
possibly come to some arrangement or compromise.
Remittances last year from Saudi Arabia
grew 5% to $1.54 billion, or 8% of the total
$18.76 billion. After Saudi Arabia, the biggest
contributor in the region is United Arab Emirates
(UAE), the source of $776.3 million in
remittances, and Qatar with $248.8 million.
Overall, the Middle East provided 16% of the
According to Ernesto Pernia, a
former chief economist at the Asian Development
Bank, if not for the remittances, some 3 million
more Filipinos would have fallen below the poverty
Total inflows last year grew 8.2%,
from $17.35 billion in 2009. But the growth could
slow this year. The Bankers Association of the
Philippines expects remittances to grow only 5%
while the Central Bank sees some 7% growth.
Remittances are keenly watched as these help banks
get a feel of the prospects for consumer
Worryingly for the
administration of Benigno Aquino, the ban,
together with the “Saudization” program of the
Riyadh government - which restricts hiring of
foreign workers in certain companies to prioritize
locals - could affect some 200,000 Filipinos
working in Saudi Arabia.
said it would seek clarification regarding the new
policy if this referred to new hires or those who
wanted to return. But it expressed confidence that
other markets would absorb the large number of
migrant workers turned away by Saudi Arabia,
including in Qatar and the UAE where working
conditions are much better.
Leah, a maid
in her 40s, said that domestic helpers at least
are treated better in Qatar although the salaries
are below of the minimum the Philippine government
wants. Tom Felix, a waiter in Doha, said that
migrant workers have much more freedom than their
counterparts in Saudi Arabia.
overseas workers group Migrante International
wants the government to rethink its policy on
continually sending out workers overseas and
instead focus on domestic job generation.
Likewise, the militant labor group
Kilusang Mayo Uno criticized the government for
"shipping Filipino workers from one graveyard to
another" and its lack of long-term plans to
provide decent employment at home.
Migrante also debunked claims from Labor
Secretary Rosalinda Baldoz that countries like
Australia and Canada could absorb some of the
displaced workers. Migrante said the workers'
skills simply do not match the demands of these
Pernia suggested there is a
need to move away from low-skilled, low-paying
labor to sophisticated or higher technical skilled
manpower to open up new labor markets for Filipino
workers and bring in more remittances.
the meantime, thousands of domestic workers in
Saudi Arabia are nervously awaiting word on their
fate. Despite the risks, many of them say that
working in the kingdom is better than going home
to nothing at all in the Philippines.
Joel D Adriano is an independent
consultant and award-winning freelance journalist.
He was a sub-editor for the business section of
The Manila Times and writes for ASEAN BizTimes,
Safe Democracy and People's Tonight.
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