Four years ago, a brave OFW (overseas Filipino worker) called Jennifer Dalquez stabbed and killed her employer when he tried to rape her in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). While Dalquez acted bravely in self defence, the UAE authorities who have a noted record for taking the side of locals over foreigners (particularly non wealthy foreigners) sentenced Dalquez to death.
Had politics as usually been the current status quo in The Philippines, Dalquez like many other non-wealthy foreigners living in the Arab monarchies of the Persian Gulf may well have been a forgotten soul to all but her family and friends. But under President Rodrigo Duterte, it is no longer business as usual in The Philippines.
Duterte threatened to ban the deployment of all OFWs to the UAE if Dalquez was not released and allowed to return to The Philippines. As a result, a woman threatened with execution for defending her safety and dignity against a true criminal is now free and back home.
To understand the significance of Duterte’s successful intervention into Dalquez’s plight, one must understand the context that 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.
During the first two years of his Presidency, Duterte has gone out of his way to visit nations with a large OFW population in the Middle East while by contrast, his predecessor Noynoy Aquino did not once set foot in the Middle East while President. While Duterte stresses good relations with all nations, his highly visible trips to the Middle East serve to reminder regional leaders that The Philippines is not ignoring the developments in the Arab world in so far as they effect the well being 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.
Just last month 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 Duterte has always stressed the importance of OFWs obeying the laws of any land they are working in, Duterte also ethically stands up against the arbitrary enforcement of unjust laws against his fellow Filipinos, something that no previous leader has ever attempted to do. Duterte has risked cutting off relations with wealthy Arab states in order to protect the lives of Filipinos and in so doing has demonstrated that of his many priorities, his supreme duty remains to his people whether they are physically in The Philippines or otherwise.
Just as Duterte’s domestic policies have protected ordinary Filipinos from being assaulted, attacked, raped and killed by drug traffickers, dealers and shabu takers, his foreign policy of engagement with and protection of OFWs has saved many from unfair treatment, possible assault and in the case of Jennifer Dalquez, Duterte has saved an innocent woman from execution.
While the lack of fully fledged 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 as has already been witnessed many times.
When one considers how much Duterte has done for OFWs, while many of his predecessors could barely lead The Philippines, Duterte is more than just The President of The Republic of The Philippines, he is the authentic leader of Filipinos throughout the world who he goes out of his way to assist in countries that are less than free while Duterte also makes the time to meet with and engage with OFWs in safe and free foreign nations. This is not only true leadership but it is true compassion and a championing of the genuine definition of human rights.