Most of the countries outside of ASEAN that Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has visited are home to a large number of Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs). But while OFWs tend to live normal and free lives in places like Korea, China’s Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, Singapore, Australia, North America and the European Union, in the Gulf monarchies of the Arab world, OFWs typically hold jobs where they are directly employed as personal assistants or labourers. At times the conditions of such workers becomes dire as the prominent murder of an OFW in Kuwait and the suicide of two OFWs including one in Saudi Arabia attests to.
Saudi Arabia has long been known to be a difficult place for foreign workers. Stories from 2016 documented how thousands of Indian workers in Saudi Arabia were left stranded without the ability to obtain assistance from their country’s embassy in Riyadh. It is against this background that it becomes clear that Rodrigo Duterte’s emphasis on protecting and reaching out to OFWs in both free countries and less than free countries has played a vital role in improving the conditions of literally millions of OFWs.
When the murder of a Filipina worker in Kuwait became publicly known early this year, President Duterte temporarily banned Filipinos from travelling to Kuwait while the embassy of The Philippines in Kuwait helped to evacuate several OFWs who had been working for abusive employers. While Kuwait responded furiously to the evacuations of OFWs, negotiations between Duterte’s administration and the Kuwaiti authorities resulted in not only the rapid restoration of relations but in Kuwait amending its domestic laws to better protect the rights and OFWs.
This week, a group of nineteen OFWs were arrested in Saudi Arabia after attending a Halloween themed party at a private resort. The arrests were reportedly due to male and female friends gathering together in public which is a criminal offence in Saudi Arabia. It has also been reported that due to the Halloween theme of the party, some of the OFWs were also charged with engaging in witchcraft which is also a criminal offence in the reactionary Kingdom. Yet just a day after their arrests, Saudi Arabia released all of the OFWs without charge after private contacts with Duterte administration officials.
As Saudi Arabia’s state executed murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi has got many people throughout the world discussing Riyadh’s treatment of individuals engaged in otherwise normal and peaceful activities, it is important to remember that many overseas workers from multiple nations have faced extraordinary hardship in a nation whose laws tend to be out of step with the wider world while the Kingdom’s culture continues to foster a ‘master-servant’ environment in the workplace that is very much at odds with many other nations in which OFWs work. While Jamal Khashoggi’s murder received global attention, the treatment of overseas workers in Saudi Arabia has rarely made headline news.
While the lack of foreign direct investment in The Philippines due to the Liberal authored 1987 Constitution continues to force many Filipinos to seek work overseas, until such Constitutional reforms are implemented and begin to reshape the country, President Duterte’s support for OFWs will remain vitally important. Saudi Arabia may well have not released the OFWs were The Philippines governed by someone less adamantly supportive of the human rights of OFWs than President Duterte. This is a fact that few OFWs will deny.
President Duterte has visited multiple nations in the Middle East where Filipinos work including Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Jordan and Israel. During each of these visits, Duterte raised the issue of OFWs in a way that no previous Philippine leader had dare to do. While other leaders did not look beyond the shores of The Philippines, Duterte has extended his influence to protect and engage with Filipinos throughout the world whose decision to leave their homeland was motivated more by necessity than by anything else.
While Duterte’s domestic achievements correctly dominate discussions among his supporters, his diplomatic achievements for OFWs cannot be overlooked. Thanks to Duterte’s willingness to engage with the many diverse and even difficult places where some OFWs reside, 19 Filipinos who did something that would be automatically legal in almost every other country in the world are now free after falling afoul of Saudi Arabia’s often perplexing legal system. This itself is a noteworthy accomplishment among Duterte’s many acts and deeds in support of the global OFW community.