Halfway around the world from Egypt and Libya, the Arab Spring is even reverberating in small-town Philippines. Many families here depend on wages sent back from wealthier countries, including the Middle East, which accounted for nearly half of new overseas jobs in 2010.
So far, job losses have been concentrated in Libya, which employed around 23,000 Filipinos before war erupted in February. A far greater worry is the prospect of cutbacks in Saudi Arabia, where more than 1.3 million Filipinos live and work, the largest overseas community after the US. Their wages helped bump up total remittances last year to a record $18.7 billion.
While Saudi rulers haven’t faced sustained protests, they’ve tried to tackle domestic unemployment by capping the number of foreign workers that companies can hire in what some observers have described as part of a preemptive move amid turmoil in the region. This could have a major effect in the Philippines, which is the fourth-largest supplier of workers after Pakistan, India, and Egypt.
In Manila, recruitment agencies are still posting Saudi jobs that run the gamut from civil engineers to nutritionists, waiters, and bellhops. But agencies say they expect fewer contract renewals, particularly at small companies, as a result of so-called Saudization of the workplace.
In addition, more experienced workers are returning home to the Philippines, leaving a gap in the market, says Loreto Soriano, who runs a recruitment company and worked in Saudi in the 1980s. “The pressure is building from both sides,” he says.
Rights of domestic servants in questionA separate row between the Philippines and Saudi Arabia over the rights of domestic servants has had a more immediate impact.
Philippine officials have demanded that Saudi employers guarantee a minimum monthly wage of $400 to servants as well as improve conditions. Since March, Saudi negotiators have refused to accept the wage demand, says Carlos Cao, the head of the Philippine Overseas Employment Agency (POEA). But he predicted that a compromise would be reached.
“There should be a way out of this … we’re still friendly countries,” he says.
Migrant worker advocates estimate that around 180,000 Filipinos work in Saudi households, mostly young women who earn as little as $200 a month. Saudi was the fourth-largest destination for newly hired servants in 2010 after Hong Kong, Kuwait, and UAE, according to the POEA. Nearly 2 out of every 3 servants hired went to the Middle East.
In 2006, then-President Gloria Arroyo-Macapagal made it illegal for recruiters to pay less than $400 a month to domestic servants, but this rule is widely flouted.
New recruits are told in orientation classes that their salaries will be less than advertised, says Darius Ambolario, a manager at Al-Khaleej International Services, which specializes in Middle East job placements. “We’re violating the law but the POEA knows that,” he says.
Grace's storyFor one family, the cost of migration has been high. Last year, 3 out of 5 daughters were contracted to work in Saudi as either domestic servants or nurses.
In March, the eldest daughter, Grace, was arrested after her domestic employer accused her of stealing a wedding ring worth $10,000. Her mother, a state college professor, who requested that the family name not be published, said that Grace had denied the crime and no ring had been found in her possession.
“I sent her money for her ticket. I don’t believe that she could do this,” says the mother.