[PHOTO AT LEFT - President Arroyo arrives at the NAIA Centennial Terminal yesterday with 121 OFWs who had been stranded in Saudi Arabia. Rudy Santos MANILA, Philippines]

MANILA, SEPTEMBER 25, 2009 (STAR) By Rudy Santos - President Arroyo arrived home from a three-nation tour yesterday with some 121 distressed overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) who were stranded in Saudi Arabia.

Mrs. Arroyo brought the OFWs back with her after representations from the Saudi Arabian government to repatriate the distressed Filipino workers.

The Overseas Workers’ Welfare Administration (OWWA) finalized the arrangements for the immediate repatriation of the stranded workers during the President’s visit to Saudi Arabia.

Mrs. Arroyo tasked Labor Secretary Marianito Roque to expedite the processing of travel documents of the stranded Filipino workers.

Roque said the Philippine Overseas Labor Office (POLO) staff in Riyadh is also working to expedite the exit documentation of the remaining stranded workers who have camped out under Jeddah’s Kandara bridge.

Earlier, 97 of these workers were brought home.

OWWA administrator Carmelita Dimzon said OWWA has been advancing plane fares and paying the penalties of the stranded workers for immigration and breach of contract violations.

Dimzon said the Saudi government would allow migrant workers to leave only if they can show an exit permit from their employers.

“OWWA is quick when it comes to bringing our workers home, to spare them from further distress. Our OWWA welfare officers can get the plane bookings fast but what slows down repatriation is the non-cooperation of some employers to sign no-objection clearances needed to issue their exit visas,” Dimzon said.

Dimzon stressed the agency does not distinguish between OWWA members and non-members when it comes to extending airport assistance services, facilitation of immigration clearances, and providing temporary accommodation and domestic transportation, legal assistance and reintegration services to Filipino migrant workers.

President Arroyo expressed her concern over the plight of Filipino workers stranded in other countries, notwithstanding the travel ban on high-risk countries such as Iraq, Jordan and Afghanistan.

Aside from safety risks, some Filipino workers still try their luck in getting employment in the three countries amid reports of underpayment of wages, alleged maltreatment and exploitation of many household service workers.

Regarding the reported increase in the number of runaways in the Middle East, Dimzon advised Filipino migrant workers to immediately contact the nearest embassy, consulate or POLO office at the first instance of trouble or problem with the employer.

“Our Philippine mission will help prevent their situation from graduating to an immigration case,” Dimzon assured.

National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) Director Nestor Mantaring, on the other hand, has assigned two agents to investigate the plight of the Filipino workers camped under the Kandara Bridge in Jeddah.

An NBI official revealed the President personally directed Mantaring to send a team to Saudi Arabia to address the plight of the Filipino workers who have reportedly put up a tent city under the bridge in Jeddah.

“The President is dead serious to address the plight of the Filipinos there and wants to know how they ended up living under the bridge,” the NBI official said.

The official added the NBI would determine if the Filipinos camping under the bridge are undocumented workers.

“The NBI will determine who among them left for Jeddah with working visa. Some of them left as tourists. It is also possible that some of them are documented overseas Filipino workers who lost their jobs and some could have left their employers,” the official said.

Labor and OFW groups, meanwhile, slammed the proposed amendment on the Migrant and Overseas Act, which they claimed would encourage illegal recruitment in the country.

The groups, led by National Labor Union president Dave Diwa, criticized Senate Bill 3286 seeking to amend the provisions of the Migrant and Overseas Act setting strict regulations and stiff fines on legitimate recruitment agencies for simple administrative lapses.

Diwa said the proposal would drive away investors in the country.

Diwa said the proposed amendment appears to address the problem of illegal recruitment but a deeper look into the new provisions would reveal that legitimate recruitment agencies may be discouraged from conducting business in the country.

“Illegal recruiters operate outside the law so they do not care how stiff it is, in fact they make more money from the difficult situation created by the law. The task is to protect OFWs, not illegal recruiters,” he said.

Jun Adorna, spokesman of Kasa Pinoy Acts, said the proposed amendment would place OFWs and legitimate recruitment agencies at a disadvantage. –With Mayen Jaymalin, Sandy Araneta, Perseus Echeminada

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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