A Better Life?

Filipino workers in the Middle East

Duterte sought to improve conditions for Filipino workers during his recent Jordan/Israel visit.

This month, President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines completed a landmark visit to Israel and Jordan. It was the first visit ever by a Filipino head of state to the two Middle Eastern nations, and resulted in some important developments.

Most attention was given to the arms deals and military cooperation agreements signed during the visit, but advances were also made in improving rights of overseas Filipino workers (OFW) in the two countries. A number of abuses by employers in the Middle East against OFWs have sparked protests and considerable diplomatic discomfort in recent months.

In Duterte’s own words, “the working and living conditions of our countrymen in Israel and Jordan are expected to improve even further.”

In Israel, the president forged an agreement to address the high placement fees Filipino workers have to pay in order to be granted employment in the country, which are set at several thousand dollars.

In Jordan, two labor agreements were penned to improve the protection for Filipino nationals employed as household service workers and to further regulate labor deployment, exchanges, and communication.

While the Filipino embassies in both countries have records of approximately 26,000-28,000 workers in each country, the real figures are suspected to be much larger, as few of those emigrating to the Middle East register with their embassies.

In fact, the vast number of undocumented workers in Jordan and Israel might render these agreements ineffective, as they are generally not protected by the law in these countries.

Jordan in particular has been the stage for some dramatic stories in the OFW community. Workers that are abused and try to escape their employers but are not able to find shelter are imprisoned. Some wish to leave the country but are unable to do so since their employers hold their passports. Those that escape and overstay their visa have been mandated to pay a fine. If they are not able to do so, they could face indefinite imprisonment.

But even if their reach might be limited to documented workers, they represent an important step forward for the region, particularly compared to other nations.

Just this year, the Filipino government imposed a ban on migrant workers going to Kuwait after the body of a 29-year-old worker was found mutilated in a freezer in an abandoned apartment. It followed a number of other similar gruesome deaths and disappearances of Filipino nationals in the country.

The ban has since been lifted, but travelling remains restricted. The Filipino and Kuwaiti governments have since drafted an agreement that legally awards further rights to OFWs in the country. These include the ability to keep their passport and one day off work per week for all house workers.

Despite the relatively limited spectrum of this social rights agreement, some have opposed the law. Sondos Alqattan, a Kuwaiti Instagram star and makeup artist received backlash on the social network platform when she protested against the law.

“How can you have a servant at home who keeps their own passport with them? What’s worse is they have one day off every week,” she wrote.

Cases of abuse have been commonplace in the oil rich region. In August 2018, a 52-year-old Filipina was found dead in a hotel room in Saudi Arabia, the Kuwaiti Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) announced it was searching for a Filipina domestic worker who has been missing for 18 months, and a Filipino migrant worker was found dead in his flat in Bahrain. The list goes on.

The workforces of countries like Kuwait, Jordan, Qatar, the Emirates, and Saudi Arabia are largely made up of migrant workers from Asia.

They generally occupy less specialized positions, most working as household service providers. Across the region, it is common for employers to withhold workers’ passports and cellphones while the OFWs remain as employees.

This however, could be about to change. For one, more attention is being given to the rights of OFWs in the Middle East in general, as the agreements signed with Israel and Jordan have shown.

On the other hand, countries like the Emirates and Saudi Arabia, which are undergoing a profound economic transformation due to the collapse in oil prices, are promoting the hiring of their own nationals rather than immigrants.

It remains to be seen if efforts by Jordanian and Filipino diplomats will have a broader effect on the region overall.