Saudis balk at paying domestic workers minimum wage

The Philippine government said that it would suspend the processing of labor contracts with Saudi Arabian employers who hire domestic workers because the Saudis refuse to pay Filipino workers the $400 a month Philippine minimum wage. The Philippine government also wants assurances that Saudi employers provide humane working conditions for Filipina domestic workers.

About two weeks ago, the Saudis sent a delegation to the Philippines to negotiate the dispute, but talks recently broke off. The Saudis want the Philippine government to alter a requirement in labor contracts that Saudi employers must sign before hiring Filipina domestic workers. The contract requires foreign employers to pay the Philippine minimum wage of $400 a month. The Saudis wanted to reduce this amount to $200 a month.

The Saudis also balked at language in the contracts that requires employers of domestic workers to provide family information and the layout of the residence where the domestic worker will be working. The Philippine government requires this information to ensure that workers will be treated humanely.

Even though talks have broken down, the Saudis want the Philippine government to continue to process the employment contracts so that they can continue to hire Philippine domestic workers. “They continue to press us not to impose the ban (on processing work contracts), citing their political role in peace negotiations in the southern Philippines (with Muslim rebels) and threaten to cut our oil supplies,” said Labor Secretary Rosalinda Baldoz.

One of the reasons that the Philippine government has stopped processing the labor contracts is that Saudi employers and Philippine employee recruitment companies often collude to circumvent the contracts. In some cases, a Saudi employer will require a domestic worker to sign a new contract that reduces her wage to $200 a month after the worker arrives in Saudi Arabia. The Philippine government is willing to start processing the contracts, but it wants assurances that the terms of the contract will be respected.

A report issued earlier this year by a Philippine government investigation mission found that in addition to receiving wages below the Philippine minimum wage, Filipina domestic workers are also subject to abuse and inhumane treatment by their employers. The report says that non-payment of wages is a constant complaint from Filipina domestic workers in Saudia Arabia. Of those interviewed by the investigation team, 26 percent said that they weren’t paid for months on end.

Those interviewed also said that beatings were common and some said that they were kept under lock and key. “Slavery was abolished in 1962 (in Saudi Arabia),” reads the report. “But customs are apparently hard to overcome. Domestic workers continue to be treated as slaves in royal and aristocratic households, and the behavior is reproduced by those lower in the social hierarchy.”

A number of Filipina domestic workers also report that they have been the victim of rape, sometimes within the household where they work, sometmes outside of it. “Many domestic workers are cast in very oppressive conditions, . . . where physical abuse and rape are rampant,” says the report. “It is fair to say that the (investigators) found that the conditions faced by domestic workers to be worse than they had imagined.”

There are between 100,000 and 150,000 Filipina domestic workers in Saudi Arabia. Until recently, the Philippine government processed about 13,000 domestic worker contracts with Saudi employers a year. Of those, 9,000 were renewals of contracts that expired, the rest were new contracts.

Vincinte Cabe, the labor attache at the Philippine Consulate in Jeddah, said that his government would like to reconvene the negotiations with the Saudis, but he said that the Saudis must agree to protections that afford Philippine immigrant workers the same rights and protections they have in their home country.

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