STARTING March next year, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia will ease the contractual restrictions on its foreign workers including Filipinos, giving them freedom to change jobs or even leave the country without the employers’ permission, the Philippine Embassy in Saudi Arabia said.
The move was welcomed by the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA).
Saudi Arabia has the biggest number of migrant workers among other countries in the Middle East.
The KIngdom’s “Labour Relation Initiative” gives foreign workers the right to change jobs by transferring their sponsorship from one employer to another, leave and re-enter the country and secure final exit visas without the consent of their employer, which had long been required under Saudi’s Kafala or sponsorship system.
Saudi’s progressive move follows recent positive developments in the Middle East initiated by Bahrain and Qatar which have already started abolishing the restrictive Kafala system for migrant workers.
Qatar is the first country in the Arab Gulf region to allow all migrant workers to change jobs before the end of their contracts without first obtaining their employer’s consent.
Bahrain on the other hand took a positive step further with its Flexi Visa system allowing undocumented/irregular workers, including undocumented Filipino migrant workers, to acquire regular immigration status without an employer sponsor.
A holder of Flexi Visa is issued a renewable work permit with a two-year validity, health insurance coverage, and a return ticket at the end of his/her contract period or when the worker decides to return to his/her home country.
For the past three years, learning from the sad fate of a Filipina domestic worker who was murdered by her employers and hidden in a freezer in Kuwait, the Philippines was at the forefront of an aggressive anti-Kafala diplomatic campaign in the Middle East.
President Rodrigo Roa Duterte’s policy direction is clear and explicit— ensure the welfare, protect their rights, and better serve all overseas Filipinos. To quote the President, “the Filipino is no slave to anyone anywhere and everywhere,” the Embassy posted on its Facebook account.
Under the guidance of the President and leadership of Foreign Secretary Teodoro L. Locsin, Jr and former Secretary Alan Peter S. Cayetano, DFA pioneered in the negotiation and international adoption of the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (GCM) as a primary U.N. process to protect all Filipino migrant workers against all forms of exploitation and abuse, and guarantee decent work, consistent with the President’s express directive that the OFW is no slave to anyone.
Locsin led the Philippine delegation during the official adoption of the GCM in Marrakech on December 10, 2018.
DFA noted Duterte is the only head of state who has openly criticized the Kafala sytem remaining uncompromising against the abuse of our migrant workers.
Since then, the Philippines has consistently spoken against the Kafala system in the United Nations and in every possible international forum.
The Philippine government likewise officially partnered with Bahrain in its labor reform movement through the Flexi Visa System. DFA funded the regularization of close to 1,000 undocumented workers in Bahrain.
“Not only did the Philippines speak against Kafala in the United Nations and in every possible international forum; we walked the talk by partnering with the prominent Kingdom of Bahrain in their labor reforms. We supported Bahrain’s Flexi Visa system that allows migrant workers to become freelancers and to be free of sponsors,” said Sarah Lou Y. Arriola, DFA Undersecretary for Migrant Workers’ Affairs.
Kafala originated from the Arabic word which means “sponsorship”. The Kafala system is a mechanism in the Gulf countries used to monitor migrant workers (usually unskilled workers i.e. household service workers, construction workers, service-industry workers, etc.) through a sponsor, usually the employer, who is responsible for the immigration status and visa of the migrant worker.
Various human rights groups and media have labelled this employment condition as “modern day slavery”, saying that the worker under the Kafala system is bound to the employer like a slave.
Under the Kafala, a worker cannot leave the employer despite abuse/maltreatment or transfer to another employer for better working conditions, without the consent of the present employer-sponsor. Critics thus note that a worker is treated like a property of the employer under the Kafala system.