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Is Any Country in The Middle East Safe for Migrant Workers?

On June 2, 2011

This week, the Philippine government determined that out of all the countries in the Middle East, only two - Oman and Israel - qualify as "safe" for its migrants. This decision becomes all the more shocking considering the low standards set by the Philippine government in order for countries to qualify as "safe".

The designation of countries as safe follows an amendment of the Migrant Workers and Overseas Filipinos Act which specifies that the Filipino Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) must certify that countries to which Filipino workers are deployed protect migrant workers’ rights. The Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) then needs to approve this certification. The law specifies that the Philippine government will only allow deployment if the host country meets at least one of these demands: it "has existing labor and social laws protecting the rights of workers; is a signatory to and/or a ratifier of multilateral conventions, declarations or resolutions relating to the protection of workers; and has concluded a bilateral agreement or arrangement with the government on the protection of the rights of OFWs."

As the language of the law indicates, none of the conditions include enforcement of protective laws or treaties, which is a major problem in the region. In none of the countries in the region are sponsors allowed to beat their workers, drive them to suicide, under-pay them, not pay them at all or confiscate their passports, and yet such practices are all too common due to lack of enforcement. Therefore, we must look at the facts of the ground and not treaties, laws or bilateral agreements in order to determine whether countries can be regarded as "safe".

Such a bottom-up approach easily reveals that neither Israel nor Oman are safe for migrants. Oman often does not enforce the regulations on minimum wage and hours of work for migrants (while doing so for its citizens) and domestic workers continue to be excluded from the protection of Oman's labor laws. Most unskilled migrants have their passports confiscated by their employers and their movement restricted while some employers threaten, beat and sexually harass their workers or prevent them from leaving their job.

In Israel, the labor laws apply to all migrants, however, enforcement is also lacking. The Israeli government does nothing to ensure that workers who come to Israel are not indebted to recruitment agents. This debt, which takes at least one year of labor to repay, prevents migrants from complaining about abuse, fearing they will lose their jobs, won't be able to find a new employer (which is usually the case, since recruitment agencies have no interest in finding the worker a new employer when they can bring a new worker who will pay the recruitment fees) and lose their job. Most migrant laborers in the agricultural sector are not paid the legal minimum wage and many employers confiscate their workers' passports. Several employers who were found to be in violation of Israel's labor laws including serious violations of work safety did not lose their license to employ workers. Inspections of work places are rare and recently, the Israeli police decided to close the branch of its police that was designed to monitor crimes by migrants but also combat human trafficking and prevent exploitation by unscrupulous recruitment agencies.

The most troubling part about this qualification it how little it will matter. If the Philippine government imposed a ban on all countries in the region except Oman and Israel, it would have at least done something to protect its workers from working in countries like Lebanon and Kuwait where suicides or migrants are so common it's not even news. However, the POEA has already announced that it will continue deploying Filipino workers to countries that the government itself determined were not safe for migrants. The POEA said "conditions in other countries will be continuously reviewed and evaluated and deployment will only be halted if a ban is put in place." member Elizabeth contributed to this report from Israel.