When news reports regarding the crackdown on illegal or overstaying foreign workers by Saudi authorities came out last week, I did my best as an OFW advocate to verify what was going on and its implications on the hundreds of thousands of Filipino workers based in the Kingdom. Online chatter on Facebook was immediate and widespread. I also received calls and messages from anxious workers and their dependents with specific questions regarding their respective work arrangements.

It would be wrong for the government to look at this issue based only on the number of Filipinos detained or rounded up alongside other illegal workers as a result of this crackdown. Quite a few of our workers have gone underground, meaning, their daily routines have changed and prospects for employment vastly reduced thus diminishing whatever modest support their families here at home enjoy. They, too, are affected by this crackdown.

Also vulnerable are Filipinos who purchased sponsorship visas from opportunistic Saudi visa traders. I refer to visas that a Saudi national bestows for certain annual fees as a cover for irregular foreign workers but without the usual employer-employee relationship attached. Such arrangements approximate the “kabit” system here wherein a legitimate taxicab owner allows his or her franchise route to be used by “colorum” cab operators on an individual basis for financial gain – except that in the case of the Saudi job market, these “sponsorship” or “freelance” visas involve foreign workers with expired or non-existent residence cards or “iqamas”.

Of course, our policy-makers can simplify this issue and just tell our workers, follow Saudi labor rules or come home and be done with it. However, such insensitivity will rankle. The truth is that some OFWs were forced to run away because the contracts that they signed in the Philippines were never followed. Unaware of their rights and unable to speak or read Arabic, their instinct tells them to flee from work and seek refuge in the bosom of the ever-helpful Filipino community. Soon enough, these workers are able to find “creative” ways to stay in Saudi, an option they prefer to going home. Multiply these stories by the number of illegal foreign workers, to get a glimmer of what the Saudi government is up against.

Saudization aims to reduce the number of foreign workers in order to give jobs to locals. Said reduction cannot take place as long as the number of illegal foreign workers continues to grow. Nitaqat is the Ministry of Labor’s systematic application of the policy of Saudization. Under Nitaqat, private companies are required to reach a certain ratio in the allocation of jobs to both local and foreign workers. Failure to meet this ratio lands the non-compliant company in the red category while those able to meet, if not surpass, this ratio, is categorized as “green” and thus, a safe zone for its expatriate workers. The deadline for red companies to comply with Nitaqat has long passed yet some of them continue to operate, putting at risk the work and immigration status of their foreign workers.

The crackdown on illegal workers is sanctioned under recent amendments to the Saudi Labor Law specifying that foreign workers are not allowed to work for anyone other than their employer or sponsor, and that the employer is not allowed to leave his workers to engage in jobs for their own personal gains. In short, none of the foreign workers are allowed to go “freelance”. Every worker is given an “Iqama” that specifies the name of his or her sponsor/employer and approved job description based on the records of the Passport Department of the Saudi government. An inter-agency team has been mobilized to check on the “iqamas” of foreign workers to uncover labor law violators.

Our government will have to be on its toes because Saudi Arabia is the biggest overseas job market for Filipinos. Who among us don’t have friends or friends of friends and relatives who worked or are still working or about to work in Saudi Arabia? I rest my case. Many of these workers have survived in the Kingdom for years, creating lives that are difficult for us here at home to comprehend. As my good friend, Jun Aguilar, a former OFW in Saudi said, it’s hard to understand an OFW’s life in Saudi unless you actually lived and worked there.

Saudization is a reality, made clearer by these crackdowns. The Saudi government is protecting its own nationals.   How prepared are we to help ours?  A number of these workers and their dependents would prefer to come home rather than face a jail term and deportation proceedings. The challenge is on how to be able to help them given the limited manpower and resources of our own embassy in Riyadh and consulate in Jeddah. I hope that our own government can invest more resources to augment the capacity of our diplomatic missions in Saudi Arabia. A more valid and concrete reintegration program linked to private sector jobs is needed amid all these crises points affecting our OFWs.

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