State of Saudi-Philippine labor cooperation is ‘all good’
In 2013, I wrote several columns for the Arab News, mostly on issues and stories surrounding Filipino workers that have made the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia their second home. My editor back then was Shahrukh Jamshed, who I am pleased to know is still with this highly respected news organization, working on its business desk.
Ten years after, May 23 to be precise, I visited the Arab News main office in Riyadh, with Faisal Abbas, its editor-in-chief, giving me a grand tour while pointing out previous and current editions, representing a sea change in style and substance. Today’s Arab News is truly global in scope, open and diverse in the coverage of subject matters, and visually pleasing — in a way reflecting the transformational journey of the Kingdom itself.
From writing a column in Manila for Arab News to representing our country on matters involving international labor cooperation as the head of a newly created department — the Department of Migrant Workers (DMW) — I have my own journey to reflect on. For whom and on what I used to write about, I now have direct responsibility for, as a member of the Cabinet under the leadership of President Ferdinand Romualdez Marcos Jr.
Lifting the deployment ban
In September 2022, I came over to discuss with my counterpart, Minister Engr. Ahmed Al-Rahji of the Ministry of Human Resource and Social Development (MHRSD), the lifting of the Philippine government’s deployment ban of workers to Saudi Arabia, a ban that took place under the watch of then labor secretary Silvestre Bello III.
The reasons for the nearly two-year ban were two-fold; the unpaid wages and other monetary claims of about 10,000 Filipino workers who worked for Saudi construction companies that declared bankruptcy in 2015-2016; and the rise in welfare cases involving Filipino domestic workers.
The first issue is now on the final stretch of being resolved. It was no less than HRH Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman who spoke to President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. about the Saudi government’s commitment to address these financial claims when they first met at the margins of the APEC Summit in Bangkok, Thailand, last November. The MHRSD, through Minister Al-Rahji, reiterated this commitment in our recent formal talks.
The second issue continues to be a work in progress, but both countries now agree on a common course — a unified effort — to enhance migrant workers’ rights, particularly for the most vulnerable workers employed in households across the Kingdom. I am pleased not just as DMW secretary, but also as a woman and mother, to be able to say that through my department’s partnership and cooperation with the MHRSD, there has been a dramatic decrease in the number of welfare cases involving Filipino domestic workers.
My late father, Blas Fajardo Ople, was the labor minister under President Ferdinand Marcos when the Philippines started sending workers to Saudi Arabia during the 1970s.
Susan V. Ople
The Philippines is now deploying more domestic workers to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia even compared to the pre-pandemic years, though the number of skilled workers had slightly dipped. Of course, there will always be those critical of what has been described over the years as the Philippine labor export policy. Yet, times have changed, and even in the Philippines, our workers choose to work where they wish, aligned with dreams that they have every right to possess.
Those who look down at the work that foreign domestic workers do conveniently overlook a simple fact: It takes a variety of skills to help run a household, including looking after its most precious members — the children — and all these skills fall under the rubric of decent, honest work.
Solutions within reach
The atmosphere across the table, in our first Joint Committee Meeting with the Ministry of Human Resource and Social Development, held on May 24, was much lighter compared to the first occasion when we met, eight months ago, to discuss the lifting of the deployment ban.
In this week’s formal talks, we discussed labor concerns such as ease of doing business and how digitalization can help address this, a pending joint agreement in the fight against human trafficking, the significant progress being made in addressing the unpaid claims of thousands of Filipino construction workers and other relevant issues. There was a sincere effort on both sides to reach out, understand the contextual realities behind every concern raised, and to respect the challenges that both parties face in migration governance.
Minister Al-Rahji said that he will visit the Philippines soon, and I, of course, am eager to see him there. Before his visit, the MHRSD will send a technical team to discuss practical matters related to the recruitment process, while a joint technical working group established during my first visit last September will continue to meet online to discuss possible amendments to our current bilateral labor agreement. The Philippine Embassy in Riyadh under the leadership of Charges’ de Affaires Rommel Romato plays a critical role in advancing our labor diplomacy efforts.
Two words to characterize Philippine-Saudi labor relations: “All good.” Not because all issues have been resolved, but because when there is mutual respect and trust, the solutions we seek together are almost always within reach.
My late father, Blas Fajardo Ople, was the longest-serving labor minister under President Ferdinand Marcos, at a time when the Philippines started sending Filipino workers to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia during the 1970s. Today, I continue his work as head of the Department of Migrant Workers, keeping watch over the process and circumstances that lead our citizens to households and companies not just across the Kingdom, but throughout the world.
My father started as a journalist, too, and I loved listening to him tell stories about the people he made friends with during his political career.
One of the most memorable moments of my visit was my informal meeting with Saudi Minister of Investment Khalid Al-Falih. He was the CEO of Saudi Aramco, one of the biggest employers of Filipino workers, (between 2009 and 2015). He spoke about the Philippines with nostalgia and affection, having once lived there with his family. I hope to count on him as one of my mentors on Saudi-Philippine relations.
It was also inspiring to meet Hala bint Mazyad Al-Tuwajiri, the first woman to head the Human Rights Commission. She and I agreed to work jointly at cases involving the trafficking of Filipino migrant workers. She impressed me as a rising star in global efforts to combat modern slavery.
Whatever our circumstances in life, we wake up to a common sun, and come home to families that await our safe return. We are all people, imbued with dignity and rights, and stories of our own to tell or keep as secrets. At the end of the day, and yes of life itself, what matters most are not titles, but acts of kindness consistently done to make for a better world.
Thank you, Arab News, for this opportunity to share a little bit about my own personal journey.
• Susan V. Ople is a former columnist of Arab News and secretary of the Philippines Department of Migrant Workers.