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Philippines toughens rules for maids in Gulf - can it make a difference?

On November 2, 2011

This post is contributed to by Khara Jabola, in response to this article.

The kafala or sponsorship system in the Gulf should be abolished, this is an absolute prerequisite for the full personhood and humanization of domestic workers. The Philippine government's new standards for overseas domestic workers and tentative bans on 41 non-compliant host countries are praiseworthy but far from promising--it is highly doubtful that this cosmetically laudable "concrete plan" will make it far off of the pages of the government’s issuance.

The Philippines is a toothless government with no political clout. What leverage does a country that has sold every national possession from citizens to soil and depends on the continued internationally homelessness of its population to stay afloat financially? In the region, the Philippines’ only competition in terms of development is Burma. The country's former colonial master, the United States, owns the Philippine military. Without the remittances from migrant workers, which now account for 11% of the GDP, the Philippine economy would crumble. Remittances raise foreign exchange reserves and allow for private consumption, which represents more than three-quarters of the country’s GDP.

Let’s put the news in perspective: domestic workers working within the Philippines do not receive benefits that are now being demanded by the Philippines from host countries although, contrary to popular belief, there exists specific legislation outlining the rights of kasambahay (the local term for household laborers which has a tellingly feudal etymology). The minimum wage for domestic workers, as stipulated by the Philippine Labor Code, is Php 800 (less than $19) per month. The Department of Labor and Employment plans to raise the compensation for domestic workers to Php 1,500 through a new bill is in the works; however, according to the same government agency, the cost of living PER DAY in urban areas for a family of four exceeds Php 800. Due to the absence of reproductive health legislation, most Filipino women live in fear of pregnancy and the average family size in the Philippines is between five and six members. Half of all Filipino families live in cities because livelihood opportunities in rural regions are scarce.

Today the Philippine government announced that it has blacklisted 41 countries that do not have bilateral agreements with the Philippines or domestic legislation that protect the labor rights of migrant workers and has already nullified several murky contracts for workers slated to exit the country. Before a round of applause, what is the Philippine government doing to provide adequate jobs or alternatives here for the desperate Filipinas whose last resort (risky, underpaid labor in the Middle East or elsewhere) has been effectively squashed?

By the numbers, almost all domestic workers are women who cannot find work in their own countries. How can a government whose own Senate President upholds the patriarchal notion that only men are fit for the public sphere and work outside of the home, claim to stand for the development of women as a productive force? If employment for women is not fully re/addressed on the home front, than any attempt to ameliorate the situation of Filipinas will be ineffectual and cosmetic.

Like a clogged roadway, economic refugees fighting for basic survival and those who exploit them, will find alternative routes to maintain a cash flow. As a result of the stoppage of workers, conditions may likely get worse for those already employed within the UAE.

The Philippine government's ruling sounds hopeful and is technically "progress" but in reality is a vacuous demand and will remain unheeded unless and until UAE is externally strong-armed or internally motivated to adopt the guidelines for domestic workers.