PHILIPPINE President Rodrigo Duterte’s trip across the Gulf region has reaffirmed his strong support in the region and posed as a glimmer of hope for some of the unfairly treated Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) who live in the region.
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.
“We also consider this trip as something aimed at creating progress, that is to draw investors to the Philippines by showing potential investors the Philippines is a viable destination for doing their business, and the fact we also have a huge and fairly young population in the Philippines, ” Department of Foreign Affairs Acting Secretary Enrique Manalo said, as reported by the Philippine News Agency.
As well as shoring up business ties, Duterte’s trip had a strong focus on improving the lives of more than one million Filipinos currently working across the three countries.
His trip is a source of great excitement for many of the OFWs in the area who remain staunchly pro-Duterte despite mounting international criticism.
While the hardman’s policies have not played well with Western governments and human rights groups, the Filipino expats in the Gulf see him as a strong leader who will affect much-needed change back home.
Harry Ramos, a senior mechanical engineer based in Doha for 12 years, told AFP (via South China Morning Post), how Filipinos returning home no longer have to bribe officials to get through customs, thanks to Duterte’s crackdown.
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 the president to defend their interests in his talks with the region’s leaders.
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.
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Workers are often subjected to dire working and living conditions and 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 counterpart in the Saudi government agreed to negotiate new rules to improve working conditions for Filipino overseas workers.
“We are meeting with the Labour Minister regarding the bilateral agreements we signed. Basically, these agreements refer to the labour standards that provided our OFWs with rules on better wages, protection from maltreatment, working hours and other labour issues,” Bello said.
During the trip, Duterte also managed to secure safe passage for 160 victims of illegal recruitment to return home to the Philippines.
Some of the 160 “runaways” are expected to return with Duterte as early as April 16.