Tackling ‘Kafala’ is key to bolster protection of OFWs in Middle East

Middle East USA World

Tackling ‘Kafala’ is key to bolster protection of OFWs in Middle East

OFW Forum

Jun Concepcion

If there’s a forest fire, is it appropriate to use a hand-held water spray used to water indoor plants? Clearly, putting out a forest fire requires more than a puny hand-held water spray.

To a large extent, the government’s bid to end maltreatment and abuses of OFWs across the Middle East can be likened to battling a forest fire. After dousing fire in one spot, flames flare up shortly thereafter in other spots in the region. This vicious cycle best sums up the fate of many Filipino women in the Middle East. Determining the veracity of this assertion is easy: Interested parties only need to read the seemingly endless streams of pleas for evacuation and rescue from highly-distressing work conditions and their repatriation back to the Philippines.  

A clear indication of the continuing ordeal of Filipino women in the Middle East was the recent public threat of Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello to suspend and stop temporarily deployments of OFWs to Saudi Arabia.

What prompted him to issue the surprising and intriguing threat?
Because of an ex-Saudi official’s purported refusal to let go of two distressed OFW domestic helpers in his employ so they could go home to their loved ones in the Philippines.

At first glance, Bello’s announcement sounds like harmonious music to maltreated OFWs in Saudi Arabia which hosts more than one million Filipino workers. But a scrutiny of his contemplated deployment  ban will immediately show that it comprises no more than a knee-jerk response to a high-profile case that happens to involve an ex-Saudi official’s errant treatment of his domestic helpers.

While Bello’s move is a welcome gesture to those who wish to end their work in Saudi Arabia, it glosses over the notorious Kafala scheme which is the principal root cause of OFW problems in that country and across the region. Originally envisioned several decades ago and intended to monitor and regulate the movements of foreign workers in the Middle East, the Kafala system has since emerged as the single biggest scourge of OFWs across the Middle East.  

How does the Kafala system work? Unknown to most first-time OFWs to the Middle East, they are bound for near certain “slavery” in domestic helper jobs in the region. Since Middle East employers pay recruitment agencies up to the equivalent of P200,000 or more for a Filipino helper, errant employers  treat foreign maids as slaves or even animals. Errant employers don’t have any qualms about treating their foreign helpers in whatever way they please because of two major reasons: extreme difficulties for foreign helpers to pay the first employer the astronomical costs of bringing them to the Middle East and lack of fear of prosecution and sanctions of errant employers, even those who inflict the most horrendous atrocities to their foreign maids.

Due to a glaring failure of the country’s decades-old overseas manpower program, Middle East-bound Filipino women are not  warned or informed about the notorious Kafala system even if they are required to attend a pre-departure seminar at the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration before leaving the country. As a result of this huge oversight, first timers to the Middle East are immediately hit by an Intensity 8 or 10 earthquake when they realize that are stuck with their employers no matter what treatment or maltreatment that they get.

To his credit, President Rodrigo Duterte recently cited in passing the need to tackle the Kafala scheme in the Middle East as part of the government’s bid to see improved work conditions of Filipinos in the region. However, neither Bello nor POEA Administrator Bernard Olalia doesn’t seem to have done anything about this issue.

As a matter of strategy, the Philippine government need not object to or fight directly the decades-old Kafala system. “Creative strategies and ways” of dealing with the sensitive labor practice have to be explored, formulated and adopted in order for substantial improvements to be gained in general for OFWs across the Middle East.

The following measures may be explored for possible adoption:

1) POEA should immediately suspend the overseas deployment license of recruitment agencies and the accreditation of their foreign principals in case five or more Kafala-related complaints are filed against them.

2) To demonstrate its resolve, the POEA should resort to periodic cancellations of deployment licenses of repeat and notorious  offenders.

3) The labor department and POEA should suspend deployments to countries where serious Kafala-related problems and serious abuses, like rapes, are inflicted on OFWs. The suspension should only be lifted after serious problems are sufficiently addressed and rectified.

With these measures, host Middle East countries will be  prompted to remedy Kafala-related and other serious work problems of OFWs in the region.

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