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.
In 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 in May.
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 jobs illegally.
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 appeal.
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.
In the 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.
Father 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 favor".
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 total.
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 line.
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 consumption.
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.
The government 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.
However, 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 countries.
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.
In 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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