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Saudi Arabia asks Philippines to send more workers

Saudi officials tell Phillipines they need more workers to roll out economic plan during talks between King Salman and President Duterte
Salman welcomes Rodrigo Duterte in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia (Reuters)

Saudi Arabia wants more Filipino workers, the Philippines government said on Wednesday following a meeting between the Philippines president, Rodrigo Duterte, and the Saudi king, Salman, in Riyadh.

In talks that covered closer cooperation in areas like investment, counter-terrorism, media, agriculture, tourism and logistics, the two leaders also discussed the 760,000 Filipinos in that Middle Eastern nation which is the second-largest employer of Filipinos overseas.

Saudi officials told the Filipino labour secretary, Silvestre Bello, that they need Filipinos to work in construction, domestic work, healthcare, retail, engineering, telecommunications, transport and the oil industry.

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

- Silvestre Bello, Phillipines labour secretary

It was widely expected that demand for such workers would fall due to the country’s policy “Saudisation,” or giving jobs to Saudis, and a dip in oil prices.

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

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

"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 added.

Blurred Saudi vision

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 building sector, have left Saudi Arabia with wages still unpaid.

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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.

Members of the Filipino community attend a meeting with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte in Riyadh (Reuters)

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.