Broken promises: Saudi OFWs demand unpaid claims
Amid a pile of documents on the kitchen table, Jasmin Pascual became anxious as she studied each paper carefully, checking it against the list of requirements.
As she has done this process many times, she prayed, “God, please, I hope we get it this time.”
Pascual’s father, Carmelino, was one of 11,000 overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) displaced from Saudi Arabia from 2015 to 2017 when an oil price crash hit the country, leaving the employers, mostly construction companies, unable to pay them for years’ worth of labor and other work benefits.
In 2017, while still unpaid for six months and waiting for the money that never came, Carmelino died in Jeddah.
The case of Carmelino Pascual and thousands of other OFWs was raised in a Nov. 18 meeting between Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and President Marcos on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Bangkok.
The Saudi prince pledged P30.5 billion in payment for the claims of the displaced OFWs, including the late Pascual.
But it wasn’t the first time the Saudi government made the pledge.
In October 2021, former Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III said his Saudi counterpart, then Labor Minister Ahmed al-Rajhi, offered to pay P4.6 billion for the claims of 11,000 OFWs by December 2021.
This was in exchange for lifting the suspension on Arab recruitment agencies that were responsible for the deployment of the displaced OFWs.
“But up to the time I left the department, they still weren’t paid, so the suspension remained,” Bello told the Inquirer. The suspension was lifted last September under President Marcos.
Roy Ecraela, special assistant of the Department of Foreign Affairs Office of the Undersecretary for Migrant Workers Affairs, said this was in exchange for adding more wage protection for the OFWs’ contracts.
“We decided to go for what has already been agreed upon rather than do a deal breaker because if we insist on it (payment of claims), we might not get the other (deals) we have agreed to,” Ecraela said.
But the Saudi Oger Pinoy Claimants (SOPC), a group of displaced OFWs, was not happy to hear this. Saudi Oger was one of the construction companies that left the workers unpaid.
“Why would they lift the ban when that’s the only leverage we had?,” Joseph, one of the group’s committee members, told the Inquirer.
In the past seven years, Joseph said his group had repeatedly received assurances and nothing more from their former employers and government officials to prevent them taking their gripes to the streets.
“They always do that when we say we’re going to do a rally. They get worried of course, there’s more than 8,000 of us from Saudi Oger demanding this,” Joseph revealed.
Claimants like Joseph expect to get paid by February next year, but he said: “If March comes and we still don’t get paid, we’ll push through with our Edsa Shrine (protest). We’re 8,000 from Saudi Oger alone, along with our families.”
Joseph said they’ve waited long enough, some even died while doing so.
Claims and hopes
Socrates Baguio, another Saudi Oger claimant who was diagnosed with a benign tumor in 2014, when he could still afford treatment, has remained unpaid for two years’ worth of work from 2015 to 2017.
In an Inquirer interview, his wife said they were cash-strapped and deep in debt when they were repatriated in August 2017.
Unable to continue his treatments, her husband’s condition worsened to Stage 4 prostate cancer, and died in March 2018 in Davao City.
“My husband’s last words to me were ‘Whatever happens, follow up on my claims’ because that’s the only thing he’s left for us,” Arcelie recalled, tearing up. “We need this so that our daughter can stay in school.”
Department of Migrant Workers (DMW) Secretary Susan Ople said more than 40 of the claimants had died as of November this year. The payments would thus go to their families, Ople added.
But based on SOPC’s own count, Joseph said, the number of deaths stood at 88 as of this month.
Ayman Hariri, Saudi Oger’s former deputy chair, told CNN International: “It was a complicated situation of having people not receive their salaries and not be happy. It is the farthest thing that we wanted or could have imagined.”
Hariri claims to have financially divested from the company in 2013, or years before the crisis.
The Inquirer requested an interview and sent a set of questions on Dec. 2 to Saad Hariri, a former prime minister of Lebanon who was the Saudi Oger chief executive officer during the crisis years, through his social media account. Hariri has yet to respond as of this writing.
P5.1 billion claims
The workers’ individual claims range from a few hundred thousand to millions of pesos. In all, it would amount to P5.1 billion covering a total of around 11,000 workers, Bello said.
But Ople said the Saudi government had pledged two billion riyals—or P30.5 billion—for the workers’ unpaid salaries.
There was no immediate explanation for the two different figures or where the difference of P25.4 billion would go. When the Inquirer sought a clarification from the DMW, the agency said the joint technical working group on the claims was still finalizing the terms of the agreement.
Jobless and in debt
Some of the claimants who spoke with the Inquirer are either currently jobless or doing part-time work.
While unemployed, Arcelie said it was a struggle to keep her daughter in school, but she considered herself fortunate to have received P100,000 in death benefits from the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (Owwa).
Jasmin, who works as a seamstress in Angeles City, received only a P10,000 cash advance from Owwa, which informed her that her family was no longer qualified for the death benefit because her father wasn’t able to pay his membership fee.
Jasmin said she had incurred some P200,000 in debts for all the traveling and payments for the documents required to get her father’s claim.
In the last seven years, many of the claimants became deep in debt, lost properties, and are living in poverty.
For these families, getting their claims could mean a fresh start, an assurance that the children could stay in school or that they could finally do house repairs. They could finally afford medical treatments—or simply have three decent meals a day.
But as they cling yet again to another promise, experience has painfully made them wiser and taught them to believe it only once it’s kept.