AFTER a week-long visit to the Middle East, President Rodrigo Duterte brought home with him 138 overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) who have been stranded in Saudi Arabia.
According to Rappler, the OFWs arrived in the Philippines early Monday on a Saudi Arabian Airlines flight specially arranged by King Salman Abdulaziz Al Saud. The group comprised 63 women, 55 men, and 20 children who have been stranded for several months, with some up to three years.
While none of the OFWs were found to have been guilty of any crime in Saudi Arabia, the group was stranded due to unresolved issues that barred them from obtaining exit visas.
The Rappler report, published on Monday, said many of the OFWs fell victim to abusive labour practices involving cases of physical abuse and employers refusing to pay their salaries.
Relieved by the end of her three-year ordeal, mother-of-three Annie Delos Santos said she was overcome by joy upon landing in her home country.
“I’m happy. I am grateful to the president because he helped us get home safely,” she was quoted as saying.
Delos Santos said her problems began when she ran away from her employers, purportedly because they did not provide her and her baby enough food to sustain.
Her husband, also a Philippine national working there, was allowed to return home, but she was stranded after failing to receive permission from her employers to leave the country. An immigration regulation in Saudi Arabia stipulates employers needed to provide consent for an exit visa to be approved.
Her predicament was similar to the other 137 OFWs who were repatriated, but not before being ensnared in a web of bureaucracy that barred them from leaving the country. However, Duterte’s visit had prompted King Salman to grant them amnesty, allowing them to return home.
Duterte had pledged to build a hospital in Saudi Arabia to cater to the needs of stranded Filipinos awaiting repatriation.
“I will ask them to establish even just a small general hospital to address the health needs of our [countrymen]… We will continue to provide so all Filipinos who want to come home can come home. It’s one way of repaying them for their sacrifices. I’ll make it daily,” he said.
We will have to spend the money, I will look for the money.” – Duterte
The trip, which saw Duterte visit Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Bahrain, was an effort to expand business ties between the Middle East and the Philippines.
As well as shoring up business ties, Duterte’s trip has a strong focus on improving the lives of more than a million Filipinos currently working across the three countries.
Duterte’s visit is of particular significance to the thousands of Filipino workers who have been subjected to violations of their human and labour rights while staying in the Gulf states – especially Saudi Arabia where 760,000 Filipinos live – and who will be looking to him to defend their interests in his talks with the region’s leaders.
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Delays in major construction projects due to a drop in oil prices and subsidy cuts resulted in more than 5,000 Filipino workers being repatriated from Saudi Arabia last year while most are still waiting to be paid.
Workers are often subjected to dire working and living conditions as well as being deprived of their passports and their right to leave. Domestic workers are particularly vulnerable to exploitation, with many suffering abuse at the hands of their employers, as well as unreasonable working hours and no annual leave.
While in Saudi Arabia, Labour Secretary Silvestre Bello III said his Saudi counterpart had agreed to negotiate new rules to improve working conditions for the OFWs.