Philippines says Saudi Arabia still needs its workers

Saudis willing to allow more than 100 'runaway' Filipino workers to return home to show commitment

Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte. (WALLACE WOON/AFP/Getty Images)

Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte. (WALLACE WOON/AFP/Getty Images)

Saudi Arabia will still need even more Filipino workers despite its "Saudization" policy, Manila's labour secretary said Wednesday following a meeting between Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and Saudi King Salman.

To show Filipinos that they are still welcome, the Saudis are even willing to allow more than 100 "runaway" Filipino workers to return home, Secretary Silvestre Bello told reporters in Riyadh.

He said Saudi officials told him they still need Filipinos who work in the Gulf kingdom in fields ranging from construction, domestic work, healthcare, retail, engineering, telecommunications, transportation and the oil industry.

"They explained the kind of growth they are having in Saudi Arabia. They would need more workers in the coming years," Bello said.

"It came from their side that Filipino workers are good workers. They recognise that they were instrumental in the growth of Saudi Arabia in the past years," he said.

Asked how this would affect the policy of "Saudization," or giving jobs to Saudis, Bello said: "Saudization is sort of just a concept now."

"The most preferred overseas worker is the Filipino," he quoted Saudi officials as saying.

Under a wide-ranging economic reform plan released last year in the face of collapsed oil revenues, Saudi Arabia wants unemployment among its citizens to fall to nine percent by 2020, against 11.6 percent last year.

Latest official figures showed almost nine million foreigners employed in the kingdom but that was before the worst of the economic pain struck, sending many expats homes.

Thousands of Filipinos and other Asian labourers, particularly in the construction sector, have left Saudi Arabia with wages still unpaid.

Saudi Arabia is the second-largest employer of Philippine overseas workers with 760,000 Filipinos in that Middle Eastern nation, Manila has said.

It was widely expected that demand for such workers would fall due to the Saudization policy and dropping global oil prices since 2014.

Stories of Filipino workers fleeing from abusive employers in Saudi Arabia have also raised concern at home.

Bello said he raised the issue of about 160 Filipino "runaways" who have fled their employers, adding that he asked the Saudi labour minister to let Duterte's delegation take them home.

"To my surprise, he positively responded to my request," Bello said, adding that they would finalise an agreement on this later.

Bello also recently recalled hearing of a Filipina maid facing execution in the Middle East, prompting him to suggest that Filipino domestic helpers be banned from travelling there.

The ambassadors of these countries then met with him to assure him there would be no executions.

"In a manner of speaking, they had a committment of no more executions," Bello said without giving details.

Manila had previously said there were 31 Filipinos on death row in Saudi Arabia.

Duterte, elected by a landslide last year,  has often vocally expressed concern for the estimated 10 million Filipinos working overseas for salaries they cannot get at home.

The money they remit back home has become a major pillar of the Philippine economy.

Philippine officials said that Duterte and the Saudi officials also discussed closer cooperation in areas like investment, counter-terrorism, media, agriculture, tourism and logistics.

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