Grass still green in Middle East for OFWs?

Grass still green in Middle East for OFWs?
THOUSANDS OF FILIPINOS SEEK OVERSEAS WORK.  Thousands of skilled Filipino workers flock to the Philippine Overseas Employment Adminisration to file application forms for employment abroad.  This agency accredits recruitment agencies to save workers from human trafficking syndicates. MELO ACUÑA

MANILA – In 2015, the government-run Philippine Overseas Employment Agency processed 2,343,692 contracts for both land-based and sea-based workers who left for abroad in search of better fortune.

Ninoy Aquino International Airport’s terminals are mute witnesses to emotional goodbyes between overseas workers and their families. Over 6,400 workers leave the country everyday.

Random interviews with Filipinos bound for overseas work are hopeful they can put their children through school with chances of a better future, build homes they could call their own, and start a viable business after several years of hard work.

However, the latest diplomatic row between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt brings to the fore the need for a deeper understanding of the dynamics and geopolitics among affluent and powerful countries where thousands of Filipinos are gainfully employed.

Numbers game

For most skilled workers, among the top ten destinations are Saudi Arabia (1), United Arab Emirates (2), Qatar (4), and Bahrain (10). These countries recently severed diplomatic ties with Qatar, recalling their respective ambassadors. They suspect Qatar has been harboring terrorist groups that are set on destabilizing the region.

Government statistics revealed 1,058,514 Filipinos are employed in Middle Eastern countries with Saudi Arabia playing host to 406,121 workers, United Arab Emirates with 276,278, while Qatar had 141,304, and Bahrain with 21,429.

Government economic managers have often acknowleged a significant part of the country’s gross domestic product comes from foreign remittances and revenues derived from business process outsourcing outfits.

True enough, despite the economic meltdown in the Western world, remittances grew to unexpected proportions, though some Middle Eastern countries have begun to implement nationalization programs.

Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas disclosed that foreign remittances in 2016 amounted to USD 26,899,840 and USD 6,020.581 came from the four countries currently amid a diplomatic rift. That’s 22.38% of the total remittances.

Saudi Arabia-based Filipino workers sent USD 2,630,650 last year while skilled workers within the United Arab Emirates contributed some USD 2,155,800. Filipino workers in Qatar added USD 1,059,001 and Bahrain-based workers sent home USD 175,128.

Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas, in a statement released yesterday revealed that among the top ten countries which accounted for about 80% of remittances sent to the country from January to April this year have come from Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, and Qatar.

The other side of the news

However, beyond the remittances and average working conditions in the four rich Arab countries, concerns have grown over the future of Filipino contract workers. Professionals, skilled, and semi-skilled workers may not readily be able to find work in the Philippines.

What caught Filipino workers and their immediate families by surprise was the immediate decision made by Labor and Employment Secretary Silvestre Bello III which called for the immediate ban on Filipinos traveling to Doha.

Migrante International, an alliance of Filipino migrant workers stressed the necessity of government contingency plans should the diplomatic row escalate.

It will be recalled that Labor and Employment Secretary Silvestre H. Bello III ordered a deployment ban to protect Filipinos from possible difficulties on June 6 though he partially lifted the ban to allow workers with Overseas Employment Certificates (OEC) and those returning to their jobs in Qatar the very next day.

An OEC is a document from the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration issued to Filipino workers before they are allowed to work abroad. Covered by the ban until yesterday were Filipinos with pending applications.

Arman Hernando, Migrante International spokesman, said workers are forced to choose between what he described as a potentially risky situation over definite joblessness in the Philippines.

It would have been to the workers’ and their families’ best interest had the Departments of Labor and Employment and Foreign Affairs disclosed concrete steps in ensuring their well-being and protection.

As of yesterday, Sec. Bello said he “made the decision” to lift the ban on Filipino workers seeking employment in Qatar. However, he hastened to add this was made upon the recommendation of the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) and the DOLE-attached Philippine Overseas Labor Office (POLO) in Doha.

Dr. Rene Ofreneo, former dean of the the University of the Philippines’ School of Labor and Industrial Relations (SOLAIR) said the Migrant Workers Act of 1995 provides that the DFA takes the lead in monitoring prevailing conditions in countries where Filipinos work and stay.

“This is what’s called ‘Country Team Approach’ where all officers, representatives, and personnel of government posted abroad regardless of their mother agencies shall, on a per country basis, act as one country-team with a mission under the leadership of the ambassador,” said Ofreneo, quoting from Section 28 of Republic Act 8042 known as “Migrant Workers and Overseas Filipinos Act of 1995.”

Ofreneo said Sec. Bello should not have spoken too soon only to ease his earlier order.

He said Sec. Bello could not have announced the total ban without recommendations from the DFA.

A migration analyst who prefers not to be named said Sec. Bello’s decision to bar Filipino workers deployment may in a way create a crack in the close diplomatic relations between the Philippines and Qatar.

The same analyst said Arab nationals are “sensitive” to decisions made by countries they consider friends or allies.

“The Philippines should not have sided with anybody in the diplomatic row because it is between and among influential and rich countries,” he further added.

It will be recalled President Duterte was warmly welcomed in Doha on April 15 on the third leg of an official visit to Middle Eastern countries.

“Filipino workers in Qatar are the best sources of information because they are the ones on the ground,” said the analyst.

The DFA has not issued any statement or imposed any alert level to Filipinos in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, and Egypt.

In a media interview with Filipino reporters ON April 15, Philippine Ambassador to Qatar Alan Timbayan was quoted saying the visit will boost ties between the two countries “to the highest levels” as the Filipino president was expected to seek out more employment opportunities for Filipinos, both workers and professionals.

“They are here [in Qatar] to seek greener pastures,” Timbayan was quoted saying further.

How the Qatari government would look at the Department of Labor and Employment’s different orders remain to be seen.

At the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration, Maybelle M. Gorospe, officer-in-charge of its planning branch said Filipinos do not necessarily leave their work despite the declaration of alert levels.

She said Filipino workers fear they may not have the same income should they opt to return home, and they are certain the government will implement repatriation measures.

“Filipinos, by the thousands, moved to the Middle East since the late 1960s and early 1970s when the petroleum industry began,” said Gorospe. She added despite the nationalization programs of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Qatar, Filipinos and other foreign workers are still welcome to work in their countries.

Brighter prospects ahead?

Will overseas employment remain a viable option for skilled, unskilled, and professional Filipinos? Will remittances be a reliable part of the Philippine economy, one characterized by high consumer spending?

As far as Sonny Africa, IBON’ executive director, is concerned, he believes overseas employment may be considered unreliable because of the international economic slowdown and competition from other labor-exporting countries, including Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and even China where workers accept lower wages than Filipino migrants.

“There will come a time when overseas employment would reach its saturation point,” Africa said in an interview. He added some 25-30% of Filipino households rely partially or wholly on overseas remittances.

According to the government’s 2012 family income and expenditure survey, 27% of Filipino families have cash receipts and support from abroad. This accounted for 5.8 million families out of the country’s total 21.4 million families in 2012.

However, families of overseas Filipinos have in a way reduced or recalibrated their spending patterns.

He added figures from Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP) revealed a reduction in annual growth from two-digit figures decades ago to single-digit onesthese past years.

The World Bank reported 9.8% of the country’s Gross Domestic Product came from foreign remittances in 2015. Citing facts and figures by BSP, World Bank reported a steady increase in remittances sent to the Philippines except in 1998.

Still the “Country Team Approach” provided by the Migrant Workers Act of 1995 (Republic Act 8042) remains the best template in managing crisis situations, the migration expert added.

He said it is only the Philippines which has a complete set of procedures and offices to attend to its overseas workers’ concerns, from recruitment to welfare programs. Other labor-exporting countries look at the Philippines for bench marking, he added. CBCPNews