Time to rethink our OFW policy in Middle East

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What started as a supposedly standard execution of (Medieval-style) Saudi judicial system quickly morphed into a regional conflagration, when Riyadh decided to execute a prominent Shia dissident, Nimr al-Nimr. What followed was massive protests by members of the Shia sect across the Middle East and beyond, with some protesters going so far as assailing Saudi embassy and consulate in Iran.

Soon, Iran and Saudi Arabia decided to completely sever their bilateral relations, with smaller Arab countries, in a show of solidarity with Riyadh, downgrading or severing their diplomatic ties with Tehran. Deeply worried about the ramifications of a potential full-scale showdown between the two regional heavyweights, world powers such as the United States, Russia and China advised restraint and/or offered to mediate between the two regional giants.

Without dialogue and cooperation between (Sunni) Saudi Arabia and (Shia) Iran, it is even harder to conceive a multilateral resolution of civil wars in places such as Yemen and Syria, and communal tensions in Lebanon and Iraq.

The good news is: It is astronomically unlikely, as reiterated by an Éminence grise in Riyadh, for Saudi Arabia and Iran to engage in direct war. Significant American, British, and French military presence in the Persian Gulf will act as a buffer against any full-fledged war between Iran and its southern neighbors. And growing Saudi-Iranian spats will continue to undermine the ability of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) cartel to dictate oil prices in international markets.

Nonetheless, there is a fear that proxy conflicts in the region will further intensify, while there is growing suspicion that Saudi Arabia, which is grappling with an economic crunch and a tenuous political transition, is bent on sabotaging – hence executing a Shia dissident, knowing fully well the ensuing sectarian backlash – the crucial nuclear deal between Tehran and world powers, which is in its final implementation stage and is serving as the backbone of growing cooperation between Iran and the West against ISIS.

Yet, the mainstream global media tends to ignore the other international aspect of the Middle East conflagration: Millions of overseas workers, mostly from the developing world, who are anxiously worried about not only their employment, but also personal safety.

The Philippines, which has as many as 2 million of its own citizens spread across the region, has a legitimate cause for concern. More than ever, it is time for countries like the Philippines to rethink their labor export policy, which is undergirded by deploying millions of vulnerable workers to one of the most dangerous and uncertain corners of earth.

Filipinos’ second nations

All countries claim to be unique in their own ways.

As far as the Philippines’ uniqueness is concerned, one must note how its whole political economy is shaped by a decades-long phenomenon of manpower export. About 10 percent of the country’s population resides outside its national territories, mostly as overseas workers, who serve as the backbone of the national economy by contributing to more than 10 percent ($26.92 billion) of the national Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

Hard-earned remittances by Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) – our modern day heroes – serves as both a cushion in period of crisis, as was the case during the immediate aftermath of the Great Recession, as well as an engine of robust growth, as has been the case in the past few years. Remittances fund the education, welfare, and investment and consumption behavior of the bulk of the Filipino population. Almost in every Filipino family, one can find a parent, sibling, and/or relative who is an OFW.

Beyond a narrow economistic view, it is clear that the OFW phenomenon carries some significant costs.

First and foremost, the feminization of Philippine labor export means that many children will be deprived of an important pillar in their family. In some families, both parents are working as OFWs, thus leaving their children behind for years if not decades with relatives or grandparents.

Then there is the culture of dependence. It isn’t difficult to find (extended) families, who end up relying on the remittances of one of their kin for much of their lifetime. As Randy David, a leading Filipino sociologist reflected on some communities he closely observed: “The remittances doubled, but the family savings never increased. Only their needs multiplied. Families became addicted to a way of life where they traded the intangible values of family life for the nonessential acquisitions made possible by remittances.”

Meanwhile, however, it is difficult to foster a sense of nationalism when a huge section of the society is always oriented towards relocating abroad in search of greener pastures – thus, creating a lopsided sense of cosmopolitanism with tenuous attachment to the motherland. Moreover, since many OFWs tend to work in relatively low-skilled or dangerous professions, they are vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.

This is particularly the case when it comes to Filipino domestic helpers, who tend to lack legal protection in many (autocratic) countries. Not to mention, the worrying proliferation of illegal recruiters cruelly exploiting the desperation of would-be-OFWs, who end up in dangerous places with no employment certainty. In particular, the Middle East, where millions of Filipinos work whether legally or otherwise, is an area of concern. It is a region racked by conflict, political instability, and autocratic regimes with often medieval and non-transparent judicial systems.

Nevertheless, one should recognize the fact that for many people, taking their chances abroad is always preferable to enduring unemployment and crushing poverty at home. Many have just given up on their country, with little hope of any significant uptick in the Philippine labor market.

Time to rethink

While many Filipinos tend to (mistakenly) view the reign of Marcos as an era of supposed prosperity, they tend to overlook the fact that the OFW phenomenon actually started during the days of dictatorship. Overseeing a whimpering economy for much of his reign (Dohner & Intal 1989), the Marcos regime saw large-scale labor export as a convenient remedy to a collapsing job market at home.

Simultaneously, the oil boom of the early-1970s also saw a major spike in Middle Eastern demand for foreign labor, especially in fields such as medicine, real estate and construction, and domestic work. Overtime, what started as a supposedly short-term response to domestic economic downturn gradually morphed into a pillar of Philippine foreign policy.

Though the Middle East is a top source of remittances, it is also where countless Filipinos have been a victim of all sorts ofabuse and exploitation, mainly due to lack of proper legal protection for foreign workers, particularly low-to-semi-skilled. Opaque judicial proceedings, prejudice, and abusive practices such as confiscation of passports by employers have collectively contributed to a system of exploitation against OFWs.

The intensified sectarian conflict in the Middle East represents an added threat to the welfare of millions of OFWs in the region. Though low oil prices are good for the Philippine economy, it isn’t necessary a good thing for the OFWs. Countries like Saudi Arabia, which ran a budget deficit of around $100 billion last year, is deeply affected by declining oil prices. Along with countries like Bahrain, it needs oil prices to be almost twice their current levels to balance its budget.

According to the International Monetary Fund, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, which enjoyed a budget surplus of $600 billion half a decade ago, are expected to run a $700 billion budget deficit by 2020. Due to lack of diversification, GCC economies are vulnerable to fluctuations in oil prices. And with post-sanctions Iran expected to flood the markets with boosted oil production, the petro-states are confronting the prospect of long-term oil glut.

The economic slump in the Persian Gulf means two things: First, structurally reduced demand for overseas workers, and, more alarmingly, potential political backlash in countries where massive dole outs have precariously bought political passivity from restive populations.

From both an employment and security perspective, this isn’t the best news for the Philippines’ labor export policy, which is deeply reliant on Persian Gulf Sheikhdoms.

And with Saudi-Iran tensions reaching new heights, there are bound to be more security risks on a regional level. Perhaps more than ever, it is important for the Philippine government to revisit its labor export policy, and instead focus on making sure that its own newly-earned robust growth at home is transformed into a more inclusive and egalitarian form of national development.

It is utterly irresponsible for any state to continuously rely on outsourcing its local employment crisis, especially when it puts millions of people in unnecessary risk. 

Richard J. Heydarian teaches political science at De La Salle University, is a regular opinion columnist for Aljazeera English, and the author of “How Capitalism Failed the Arab World: The Economic Roots and Precarious Future of Middle East Uprisings” (Zed, London). He previously served as a policy adviser at the House of Representatives, focusing on foreign affairs and OFW-related issues.

– from Rappler.com

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