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Filipino Workers Caught in Syrian Crossfire

CAIRO, Apr 19 2012 (IPS) - As pressure mounts on the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to keep up an uncertain truce, human rights advocates are demanding reforms to a sponsorship system that has left many migrant domestic workers in Syria with no place to run.

According to the United Nations (UN), more than 9,000 people have been killed in the last 13 months since uprisings began against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s rule.

Caught in the crossfire are more than 17,000 Filipino migrant domestic workers. Filipino labour rights organisation Migrante International estimates that only 2,000 Filipino migrant domestic workers have been repatriated since fighting broke out last year.

Earlier this month, a Syrian decree banning Filipino migrant domestic workers from entering the country went into effect. Meanwhile, thousands of Filipino migrant domestic workers are desperately looking for a way to get out.

Forty-year-old Violeta Cortez from San Pablo was one of two domestic workers killed after being hit by stray bullets while trying to flee Homs to seek shelter at the Philippine embassy in Damascus.

“When the initial violence broke out in Syria, the Philippine government dismissed the urgency of implementing an evacuation and repatriation strategy,” John Leonard Monterona, Middle East coordinator for Migrante International told IPS.

“As a result, several Filipino migrant domestic workers have served as collateral damage due to the Philippine government’s wait-and-see policy.”

Given the kafala system which links residency permits to the employer, repatriating workers out of Syria would entail negotiating with employers to buy out their contracts and paying fines to immigration officials.

“Filipino domestic workers in Syria, and this is the same for other migrant workers, are having a hard time getting out because their employers are not allowing them to leave. It’s a big problem because they can’t exit Syria without the final issuance from their respective employers,” Monterona said.

“Another problem is that we are getting claims that when some Filipino domestic workers go to the Philippine embassy to seek assistance they are being placed in the jails. Migrante is trying to get information from the embassy as to why they are failing to protect these women.”

“In terms of reforming the sponsorship system, governments in the region need to ensure that migrant domestic workers are able to resign from their jobs,” human rights lawyer and author of ‘Reforming the Sponsorship System for Migrant Domestic Workers: Towards An Alternative Governance Scheme in Lebanon’, Kathleen Hamill, told IPS.

“These workers must have the ability to change employers or leave the country without sponsor consent. Guaranteeing labour mobility and freedom of movement is essential for migrant workers, and this requires breaking the shackles of employer-tied visas. This also requires improving the recruitment process by regulating recruitment agencies, many of which are unlicensed,” said Hamill.

“Governments must also guarantee the right to live outside of the workplace or household, and they must guarantee statutory holidays for migrant domestic workers – in addition to a weekly day of rest and annual leave.”

Saudi Arabia’s Labour Ministry recently proposed a draft legislation canceling the traditional sponsorship system by shifting responsibility from the employer to new recruitment agencies.

The recommendations – which include abolishing the confiscation of passports, putting recruitment agencies in charge of repatriation, protecting workers’ rights, the establishment of a commission to monitor newly established recruitment agencies, and insurance – is based a five-year study that is set to be reviewed by the Council of Ministers.

“Recruitment agencies are also part of the problem when it comes to exploiting migrant workers,” Linda al-Kalash, director of Tamkeen, an organisation providing legal assistance for domestic workers in Jordan told IPS.

“Tamkeen dealt with a case where the recruitment agency in the worker’s home country lied about her age. It was later revealed that she was 13 years old. How did she pass the medical examinations, obtain the working visa and how did the agency in Jordan allow for her to be placed in a home? At fist sight, it’s clear that this was a child.”

“Migrante International is lobbying Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) ministers to ensure the rights of all expatriate workers working in Arab countries by scrapping the current sponsorship system. We believe this is the root cause of the bondage labour which is akin to slavery,” adds Monterona.

“If we abolish this system, then migrants working in countries where there are natural disasters or even war can easily leave without asking for permission or being reported as an absconder by their employer.”

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