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04:53 AM July 20th, 2011

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By: Michael L. Tan, July 20th, 2011 04:53 AM

There was a time when “Saudi” became a verb in the Philippines, as in “mag Saudi,” meaning to work overseas. During the 1970s, when government made it an official policy to export Filipino workers, the main target was Saudi Arabia. Over the years, the destinations have become much more diverse, but Saudi still remains an important market, with some 1.3 million Filipinos working there.

Now comes news that Saudi Arabian officials are going to seriously implement “Saudization,” which means getting more local people to take on the jobs currently held by foreigners. The Saudi government announced that effective August 1, it would impose a moratorium on the hiring of new Indonesian and Filipino maids.

Yet, amid the panic over thousands of Filipinos having to come home from Saudi, I am wondering if Saudization is only part of a broader strategy on the part of Saudi officials to bargain over the conditions of foreign workers.

Saudization was announced as early as 2006 but has been going very slowly. This program includes incentives for companies that would move in the direction of hiring more local employees. There was also a Nitaqat system where companies would be color-coded according to the composition of their work force. Green companies are those where at least 10 percent are Saudi nationals. These companies will continue to be able to hire foreigners as long as they keep that minimum percentage. Companies where Saudi nationals comprise less than 10 percent of the total will have to phase out foreigners, with no new working permits for the ones who have stayed in Saudi for more than six years. Finally, “red” companies are those that have no local employees at all, and will not be given permits to hire any more foreigners.

If Saudization is to be seriously implemented, it would mean that the relatively unskilled foreign workers would be at greatest risk of being sent home. Unfortunately, this includes many Filipinos, for example, those working as domestic helpers.

News reports now carry estimates of the number of Filipinos who might lose jobs with Saudization. Our government estimates “only” about 140,000 Filipinos would lose their jobs but other reports from the recruiting firms project that as many as 350,000 might lose their jobs.

Fears of a shrinking job market are not just for Saudi but for other Middle Eastern countries which are also talking about getting more local people to work. Thus we read now of “Emiratization,” “Omanization” and “Qatarization.”

Behind the scenes

I would have just shrugged my shoulders and say that Saudization was inevitable but over the weekend, while searching for information on the Internet about a CNN feature, I stumbled on a news item that is making me wonder if there’s more to all this than just Saudization.

Last June 16, the Saudi government beheaded an Indonesian maid, Ruyati binti Sapubi, on charges of murder. There was national outrage and grief over the execution in Indonesia, especially because Saudi officials did not inform the Indonesian government about the date of the execution.

A second Indonesian maid, Darsem binti Dawud Tawar, was then scheduled for beheading for killing a relative of her employer. The Indonesian woman pleaded self-defense, claiming the man had tried to rape her. This time, with strong public pressure to take action, the Indonesian government agreed to pay diyat or “blood money” to relatives of the slain man. The diyat was 2 million riyals or $533,000. The Indonesian maid was released and was able to fly home to Indonesia.

Indonesians, however, continued to push their government to negotiate for more humane working conditions. The Indonesian government announced they would begin a moratorium on sending more maids to Saudi.

At around the same time, our government was also negotiating with Saudi Arabia for a minimum monthly salary of $350 for domestic helpers. The Saudis were said to have objected, saying they were willing to go only up to $200.

Then the Saudi government turned the tables around and declared their own August 1 moratorium on hiring.

Broad alliance

Indonesian and Filipino labor officials should be talking to each other and forming an alliance to better bargain with the Saudis.

When Indonesia began to accelerate its export of laborers, it looked to the Philippines for model policies because we began much earlier sending workers overseas. Unfortunately, in the area of domestic workers, the Indonesians may have inadvertently made it more difficult for Filipinos to assert their rights when they jumped on this labor export bandwagon. In Hong Kong, for example, some employers have shifted away from Filipinos to hire Indonesian and Nepali women, who are said to be more docile and obedient than Filipinos. Many Hong Kong employers have however continued to hire Filipinos because our women still have an edge in terms of English proficiency and education, what with nannies having degrees in care giving, education, midwifery and occasionally nursing.

Whenever I am in Hong Kong I visit NGOs that work to protect domestic helpers in general, especially those from Indonesia and Nepal. Not surprisingly, the NGOs are run mainly by Filipinos, including some who are themselves domestic helpers.

In Saudi Arabia, Filipinos have less democratic space to assert their rights, and are more likely to be in a similar situation as Indonesians in terms of poor working conditions and risks such as sexual harassment. The story of the two Indonesian maids remind us of what our own women have gone through, not only in Saudi but also in more hospitable, but still difficult, environments like Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan. The fact is that Indonesian and Filipino domestic helpers are seen almost like slaves in Saudi, to be used and abused.

Some of the Internet articles about Darsem binti Dawud Tawar had photographs of her reunited with a very young son. It turns out the boy was just a baby when she left in 2006. The rape and the murder took place in 2009. It was five years since she left Indonesia, and if it had not been for the government paying the diyat, her son would have never seen her again.

We have had so many similar stories and it’s time to ask if it is all worth the riyals and dollars. It is heartbreaking to read that Saudis feel $200 is all our maids deserve. That’s about P8,600, way below what a minimum wage earner would get in a month here in Metro Manila. We know of course that such jobs are still hard to find, so it’s the ones in most need, like those with very young children, who will have to leave and work overseas.

Much now will depend on the efforts and negotiating acumen of the governments of the Philippines and Indonesia to find ways to protect our workers. The Saudis are playing the game with Saudization as a gambit. They will be watching our next move.

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