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Internet beauty and a can of worms

Someone beat President Duterte at shock talk this week. The President’s Sona 2018 was surprisingly tame, so in terms of words with impact, the spotlight was taken by Sondos Alqattan, a Kuwaiti beauty blogger and social media influencer. Cringe at her “job titles” if you will, but the implications of her words are something Filipinos should pay attention to.

Alqattan came under fire when she posted a video on Instagram complaining about recent legal changes in her country that gave Filipino workers the right to keep their own passports and to have a day off each week. Naturally, Pinoys everywhere were immediately up in arms, responding to the online celebrity with such fierceness that she became globally infamous overnight.

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The internet beauty’s rant opened a can of worms for her. Many have called Alqattan a “slave driver” with a “backward” mindset. But, sadly, this is not the first time we’ve heard of an employer with this attitude toward migrant workers. Numerous accounts of Filipino employees being mistreated overseas, from employers withholding their passports to those physically or sexually abusing them, have become staple news.

Now, because of a makeup star’s remarks, we are prompted to look more closely into the mentality of such employers.

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At the heart of the issue is the “kafala” system, the longstanding legal arrangement under which foreigners have been working in many Gulf nations. In a nutshell, kafala means sponsorship. Private employers in countries such as Kuwait, Qatar and Saudi Arabia sponsor the hiring and migration of foreign workers, and, in turn, these employers gain a certain amount of control over their employees.

The system was supposed to place responsibility on citizens to look after foreigners. Instead, it has become almost synonymous to abuse and repression. For instance, a sponsor-employer may be able to decide whether a migrant worker can quit or change jobs or even leave the country. Many employers have also used this system as an excuse to keep wages low and to prevent workers from speaking up when their rights are violated.

The kafala system is so deeply embedded in the history and culture of the Middle East that it is unlikely to be overhauled despite the global community’s disapproval. However, various nations have taken steps to better protect migrant workers.

An example is the Memorandum of Understanding between Kuwait and the Philippines, signed last May. The MOU includes provisions such as creating a 24/7 abuse hotline for Filipino workers, allowing them seven hours of sleep, giving them access to their cell phones and passports, and allowing them a weekly day off.

It’s almost inconceivable that a nation would need a legal agreement before providing workers with basic human rights. But these are changes that somehow run counter to a long-entrenched legal and cultural structure. It is perhaps the only domestic employment system that citizens like Alqattan have ever known—a closed status quo that they grew up in, severely constricting their own concept of human rights.

Likewise, the world has largely been blind to the legal environment that allows the abuse of workers in the Gulf region. Filipinos barely talk of kafala, despite some 200,000 of our fellow citizens working in Kuwait.

We take every account of abuse as it surfaces, and when the dust settles, we forget that there is still a mountain of legal norms to be moved. And then, without really changing anything, we send our mothers and brothers to the region anyway, hoping they wouldn’t be in a wooden box when they return. We let the cycle continue because not many of us understand—and protest—the system we’re up against.

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The Instagram celebrity’s ill-conceived remarks have inadvertently opened for us a bigger window into this. The world is rallying with us, too. Already, international brands have cut ties with Alqattan, thanks to pressure from Filipinos against supporting “modern-day slavery.” More people are joining the conversation on migrant workers’ rights, taking note of the policies that affect them.

At best, this Alqattan episode can be a lesson for employers who are still unenlightened on what workers deserve. It chips away at the mountain we must move to ensure the safety and wellbeing of our overseas workers.

hyacinthjt@gmail.com

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TAGS: OFW, racism, social media, Sondos Alqattan
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