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Foreign workers outside Saudi Arabia's immigration department in the capital Riyadh. Foreign workers outside Saudi Arabia's immigration department in the capital Riyadh.  

Bishop urges Saudi labour reforms cover Filipino domestic workers

Saudi Arabia is easing the “kafala” sponsorship system for recruiting workers, a measure that will benefit millions of migrant workers in the country.

By Vatican News staff writer

As Saudi Arabia plans to ease job contract restrictions for foreign workers, a Filipino Catholic bishop hopes household service workers (HSWs), or domestic helpers, will benefit from them. 

Bishop Ruperto Santos of Balanga, vice chairman of the Episcopal Commission for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, said the labour reform would benefit Filipino domestic workers.

Next year, Saudi Arabia is easing a foreign worker sponsorship system known as “kafala,” which gives employers control over the lives of some 10 million migrant workers from several countries. The reforms, which comes into effect in March 2021, will allow foreign workers in the private sector to change and leave jobs, and enter and obtain exit visas from Saudi Arabia without their employer’s permission. 

Kafala breeds maltreatment, exploitation

“We pray and hope that our domestic workers would be included with the easing of kafala,” Bishop Santos said.  “Once they will be covered, it will be a welcome relief and valuable protection for our domestic workers,” he said.  According to him, the kafala system makes migrant workers “open to and prone to maltreatment and exploitation.”

“With kafala,” he explained, workers are “unwillingly tied up to their employers as if ‘owned’ by them . . . Their movements are curtailed, and cannot leave the country.” 

 “Kafala,” meaning “sponsorship” in Arabic, has been criticised by human rights organizations for creating easy opportunities for the exploitation of workers, as many employers take away passports and abuse their workers with little chance of legal repercussions.

Action to include domestic helpers 

Earlier, the International Labour Affairs Bureau (ILAB) of the Department of Labour and Employment (DOLE) reported that HSWs and other workers who are not employed by companies are not covered by the Saudi initiative. Currently, only skilled workers are covered.

Bishop Santos encouraged government officials to appeal for the country’s workers to be included in the easing of the kafala. According to ILAB Director Alice Visperas, the Philippine Overseas Labour Office (POLO) in the host country is ready to raise the issue with the Saudi government. Labour Secretary Silvestre Bello III on Wednesday said there is a Special Labor Agreement between the Philippines and Saudi Arabia on the protection of Filipino domestic workers.

Saudi Arabia has been the top labour destination for Filipino household workers for the past 10 years. Of the estimated three million OFWs around the globe, about 800,000 are in the kingdom alone.

Qatar has also implemented a similar labour reform benefitting some 241,000 Filipino workers, including HSWs. Bahrain abolished its kafala system in 2009. But the repressive system is still in place in Lebanon and most Gulf Cooperation Council member states.

12 November 2020, 14:39