Middle East hiring freeze stings the Philippines

As part of a preemptive move to avoid major protests, Saudi rulers have tried to tackle domestic unemployment by trimming the number of foreign workers in the country where more than 1.3 million Filipinos live and work.

Halfway around the world from Egypt and Libya, the Arab Spring is even reverberating in small-town Philippines. Many families here depend on wages sent back from wealthier countries, including the Middle East, which accounted for nearly half of new overseas jobs in 2010.

So far, job losses have been concentrated in Libya, which employed around 23,000 Filipinos before war erupted in February. A far greater worry is the prospect of cutbacks in Saudi Arabia, where more than 1.3 million Filipinos live and work, the largest overseas community after the US. Their wages helped bump up total remittances last year to a record $18.7 billion.

While Saudi rulers haven’t faced sustained protests, they’ve tried to tackle domestic unemployment by capping the number of foreign workers that companies can hire in what some observers have described as part of a preemptive move amid turmoil in the region. This could have a major effect in the Philippines, which is the fourth-largest supplier of workers after Pakistan, India, and Egypt.

In Manila, recruitment agencies are still posting Saudi jobs that run the gamut from civil engineers to nutritionists, waiters, and bellhops. But agencies say they expect fewer contract renewals, particularly at small companies, as a result of so-called Saudization of the workplace.

In addition, more experienced workers are returning home to the Philippines, leaving a gap in the market, says Loreto Soriano, who runs a recruitment company and worked in Saudi in the 1980s. “The pressure is building from both sides,” he says.

Rights of domestic servants in question

A separate row between the Philippines and Saudi Arabia over the rights of domestic servants has had a more immediate impact.

In June the Saudi government said it would stop issuing permits to maids from both the Philippines and Indonesia, which had protested over the beheading of an Indonesian maid convicted of murdering her employer’s wife. Human rights groups say female servants are more vulnerable to abuse than workers in factories and offices.

Philippine officials have demanded that Saudi employers guarantee a minimum monthly wage of $400 to servants as well as improve conditions. Since March, Saudi negotiators have refused to accept the wage demand, says Carlos Cao, the head of the Philippine Overseas Employment Agency (POEA). But he predicted that a compromise would be reached.

“There should be a way out of this … we’re still friendly countries,” he says.

Migrant worker advocates estimate that around 180,000 Filipinos work in Saudi households, mostly young women who earn as little as $200 a month. Saudi was the fourth-largest destination for newly hired servants in 2010 after Hong Kong, Kuwait, and UAE, according to the POEA. Nearly 2 out of every 3 servants hired went to the Middle East.

In 2006, then-President Gloria Arroyo-Macapagal made it illegal for recruiters to pay less than $400 a month to domestic servants, but this rule is widely flouted.

New recruits are told in orientation classes that their salaries will be less than advertised, says Darius Ambolario, a manager at Al-Khaleej International Services, which specializes in Middle East job placements. “We’re violating the law but the POEA knows that,” he says.

Far from boosting incomes, the 2006 law led some Saudi employers to cut salaries for maids who were making over the minimum, says Garry Martinez, who runs Migrante International, an advocacy group in Manila. “The government has to realize that even $400 is low given the work that domestic helpers are doing: 16-hour days, and no day off,” he says.

Grace's story

For one family, the cost of migration has been high. Last year, 3 out of 5 daughters were contracted to work in Saudi as either domestic servants or nurses.

In March, the eldest daughter, Grace, was arrested after her domestic employer accused her of stealing a wedding ring worth $10,000. Her mother, a state college professor, who requested that the family name not be published, said that Grace had denied the crime and no ring had been found in her possession.

“I sent her money for her ticket. I don’t believe that she could do this,” says the mother.

An official at the recruitment agency in Manila that hired Grace said the Saudi employee had agreed not to press charges, clearing the way for her deportation. She is currently in a women’s welfare center awaiting clearance, the official said.

Grace isn’t the first in the family, who live in a small town outside Manila, to land in trouble in Saudi. Her younger sister Isabella came back after less than a month in service. Her wealthy employer had passed her to a company executive who she says tried to molest her at his apartment.

“Even if I shout in there, nobody can hear me,” she says. A Filipino friend helped her to contact her embassy and she was repatriated but didn’t receive any wages.

Last August, just weeks after Isabella’s return, Grace made the reverse journey, seemingly undeterred by her sister’s traumatic story. A third sister works in a Saudi hospital. Family members say Grace wanted to earn more money so that she could provide for her two children, whose father left last year.

Isabella has since applied for a job in Manila and has no desire to return to Saudi. “I really pity Filipinos working there,” she says.

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