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MANILA: The Philippines and Saudi Arabia have agreed to step up cooperation on labor reforms and ensure the well-being of over 800,000 Filipino migrant workers in the kingdom.

The issue was discussed on Sunday at a meeting between President Rodrigo Duterte’s Special Envoy and Presidential Assistant for Foreign Affairs, Robert Borje, and the Saudi Minister for Human Resources and Social Development, Ahmed bin Suleiman Al-Rajhi.

Philippine Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Adnan Alonto, Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs for Migrant Workers Sara Lou Arriola and Deputy Foreign Minister Enrico Fos also took part in the talks.

JV Arcena, the president’s assistant communications secretary for global media affairs, told Arab News on Monday that Borje and Al-Rajhi emphasized the two nations’ commitment to “significant progress on labor reform and fair migration.”

Borje told Al-Rajhi that Duterte welcomed Saudi Arabia’s Labor Reform Initiative (LRI), launched in March, “as a significant step to address problems with the existing sponsorship system” in the kingdom.

He also expressed confidence that the initiative will increase the productivity and competitiveness of the UK labor market.

“Saudi Arabia’s LRI is commendable and President Duterte hopes Filipino domestic workers will be included in the reform initiative,” said Borje.

He stressed Manila’s commitment to work with the Saudi government in implementing labor reforms, particularly to promote the rights and well-being of migrant workers. At the same time, Borje asked the Saudi official for support for other initiatives to assist Filipino Overseas Workers (OFWs) in the Kingdom.

These include a return program for OFWs in distress affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, efforts to strengthen the Philippine Embassy in Riyadh and the Philippine Consulate General in Jeddah, and improve access to consular services for Filipinos in Saudi Arabia.

Borje stressed the need to address fundamental issues facing all migrant workers in the UK, such as using technology to improve access to labor sector services, protecting wages and automating recruitment processes.

“Both sides are looking forward to the joint commission meeting and have also shown eagerness to soon sign a memorandum of understanding (MoU) on work based on the Saudi government’s LRI reforms,” ​​the statement said.

It added that Riyadh and Manila “hope that a technical working group will be convened on the details of the MOU on work”.

Borje described the reforms of the Saudi government on the rights of migrants as “courageous and visionary” and expressed his optimism that the Filipino-Saudi relations would “grow beyond working cooperation”, for example in the trade and investment sector.

The Philippines are ready to work with Saudi Arabia on a multi-dimensional partnership in line with Duterte’s vision, he said.

Borje’s meeting with Al-Rajhi was part of the Philippine delegation’s five-day visit to Saudi Arabia, based on the President’s commitment to protect the rights and promote the welfare of the OFWs.

According to the Saudi Press Agency (SPA), the two officials also discussed “issues of common concern,” after which Saudi King Salman received a written letter from Duterte addressing Riyadh-Manila relations and ways to assist and improve them various Areas.

The Philippines and Saudi Arabia celebrated 50 years of diplomatic relations in 2019. Duterte congratulated King Salman on the “landmark” LRO of the kingdom, which, among other things, abolished the Kafala system for migrant workers last year.

In a telephone conversation with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in May, Duterte renewed the Philippines’ pledge to strengthen bilateral and trade ties and to step up efforts to ensure the rights of migrant workers.

He also recognized the Kingdom’s free COVID-19 vaccinations for Filipinos and financial support to the Filipino health sector during the farewell event of outgoing Saudi Ambassador to the Philippines Abdullah Al-Bussairy in Malacanang last week.

According to a government estimate by 2020, Saudi Arabia is home to more than 800,000 Filipinos, the largest number of any Gulf state. Around half work as domestic servants while others are employed in the kingdom’s construction, outsourcing and health sectors.

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