COVID holiday blues for returning OFWs

COMMONSENSE - Marichu Villanueva (The Philippine Star) - November 30, 2020 - 12:00am

The Philippine government, through the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), was most pleased after the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) finally took concrete steps to implement their “Labor Relation Initiative” abolishing their country’s “Kafala” or sponsorship system. The new move will allow migrant workers, including those from the Philippines, the right to change jobs by transferring their sponsorship from one employer to another, leave and re-enter the country and secure final exit visas without the consent of their employer.

Saudi Arabia is one of the Middle East (ME) countries with the biggest number of Filipino migrant workers. The Kingdom’s government is lifting the “Kafala” system, considered by migrant workers as an onerous imposition on them, starting March 14 next year. This new policy will benefit some documented 865,121 Filipino migrant workers, or those with legal papers deployed in the Kingdom as of December 2019, according to Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE).

The abolition soon of this “Kafala” system is particularly significant in the light of the fact that millions of our overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) who are working in the Arab Gulf region chose to remain at work in these countries despite the on-going coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic.

The Philippines has been advocating against the “Kafala” system before the United Nations (UN) and in other international fora to protect millions of our OFWs scattered and employed all around the world. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) has congratulated DFA Secretary Teodoro “Teddy” Locsin Jr. and the diplomatic team who dedicatedly lobbied to the KSA government and almost all international forums including other UN agencies.

In fact, the Philippine government was among the labor-sending countries that has officially partnered with Bahrain, which recently abolished their own “Kafala” system. The Philippines also acknowledged recent developments in Qatar as the first country in the ME region to allow all migrant workers to change jobs before the end of their contracts without first obtaining their employer’s consent.

The less restriction to be put in place is a far cry from the old system which is vulnerable to abuse. The previous system enabled employers to confiscate the foreign worker’s passport and can even pursue a case if the worker leaves the employer without obtaining consent. The IOM lauded the new labor reforms, describing it as a “game-changer” in terms of workers’ protection.

The lobbying for the lifting of the KSA’s “Kafala” system was actually started by then Foreign Affairs Secretary and now Taguig Rep. Alan Peter Cayetano. When he assumed office at DFA, Cayetano saw the immediate need to give complete support of the government as promised to them by Mayor Duterte during the 2016 presidential campaign. Cayetano run but lost as the vice presidential runningmate of the former Davao City Mayor in the May 2016 elections.

Cayetano steered the DFA helm for one and a half year before he decided to return as a legislator and become House Speaker of the 18th Congress under a controversial term-sharing agreement.

Having first served three terms as Congressman before and subsequently two-terms as Senator, Cayetano saw to it that the DFA’s annual budget increased the allocation for the Assistance to Nationals fund from P400 million to P1 billion, and that of the Legal Assistance Fund from P100 million to P200 million. This allowed the DFA to help 14,995 distressed OFWs and to provide legal assistance to 685 migrant workers facing charges.

This provided Locsin, Cayetano’s immediate successor at the DFA, enough funds in the agency’s budget this year to carry out the unexpected need to undertake massive repatriation of thousands of our OFWs following the outbreak of the deadly COVID-19 pandemic.

To Cayetano’s credit also, Locsin is now implementing the 10-year validity of the Philippine passports that we can now all have, especially for our OFWs who are bound by long-term contracts to work abroad. More consular offices were opened to facilitate the public’s ability, more so of our OFWs, to secure documentary requirements for their travels. To further ease the process, Cayetano instituted the DFA’s “Passport on Wheels” program where passport applications are allowed in special events all over the country. This enables Filipinos unable to go to the DFA consular offices or to Manila to apply for their passport.

When he became Speaker, among the bills he filed is the proposed creation of the Department of OFWs. This bill was passed on third and final reading in March this year, months before he lost the House leadership to now Speaker Marinduque Rep. Lord Allan Velasco. Despite being included in the priority legislative bills of President Duterte, it got stalled at the Senate.

The Senators questioned the bill’s necessity at this time given the present huge size of the Philippine bureaucracy. Instead, the Senate is poised to approve first the bill on the “rightsizing” of the government before acting on bills to create new departments.

For now, the DOLE estimated more than two million OFWs currently employed in the entire ME region. Overall, the total employed OFWs could be much lesser after several thousands of our OFWs have returned home since the COVID-19 pandemic erupted early this year. With travel restrictions imposed globally, substantial number of our OFWs could not go back to their former jobs abroad.

Thousands more of our OFWs are coming home for the upcoming Christmas season while we’re still under COVID restrictions.

With the abolition of the “Kafala” system, our OFWs who chose to stay in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Qatar despite the COVID-19 pandemic will still be able to look for better opportunities without having to worry about being unable to send money to their families back home.

Sadly though, still many of them are arriving to spend the holiday blues with their families because they have lost their jobs due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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