RIYADH: Members of the Filipino community react as they attend Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s meeting in the Saudi capital. Duterte is on a three-day visit to meet Saudi leaders for investment, trade and support for overseas Filipino workers in the Kingdom. (Right) Saudi Arabiaís King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud (right) and Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte review the honor guards in the capital Riyadh. — AFP

DOHA: With more than a million Filipino workers spread across Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Qatar, it is small wonder that President Rodrigo Duterte has undertaken a week-long tour of the Gulf. The migrants have been drawn to the region by a combination of factors-drug crime and corruption back home, and the job opportunities and wages on offer in the Gulf. Duterte's deadly war on drugs may have brought him notoriety in the West, but it has earned him the admiration of many Filipino expatriates anxious for change at home.

"I would happily say I'm a 'DDS', a Duterte Diehard Supporter," Harry Ramos, a senior mechanical engineer based in Doha for 12 years said. "His platform of government is simple, and he's got the political will to do it." Duterte's populist agenda went down well with the Filipino diaspora in Qatar, where he received almost 80 percent of the expatriate votes cast in last year's presidential election.

Ramos, 58, speaks happily about how Filipinos returning home no longer have to bribe officials to get through customs, thanks to Duterte's crackdown. Life though has turned sour for some in the Gulf, especially in Saudi Arabia where 760,000 Filipinos live, and they will be looking to the president to defend their interests in his talks with the region's leaders. A collapse in oil revenues since 2014 has prompted subsidy cuts and delays in major projects.

More than 5,000 Filipino workers were repatriated from Saudi Arabia last year and most are still waiting to be paid. Duterte held talks with Saudi King Salman on Tuesday and was in Bahrain for talks yesterday. Today, he flies into Qatar. "He will discuss with these leaders matters relevant to the welfare and dignity of the Filipinos living in their countries, as well as explore avenues of economic and political cooperation," Philippine Assistant Foreign Secretary Hjayceelyn Quintana said.

Four times the wages

In the bustling Souq Waqif area of the Qatari capital Doha, Duterte's trip has prompted an air of expectation. On a balmy early summer evening, with temperatures touching the low 30 degrees Celsius (90 degrees Fahrenheit), conversation outside the busy Manila Supermarket quickly turns to the president's visit. Ray, a 38-year-old civil engineer, said he wanted to meet Duterte in person, something he could never achieve back home.

He admitted there was an issue with the poor treatment of some migrants, especially those in domestic service, but said life was generally good for Filipinos in the emirate. "All Filipinos come here because they want to earn money," he said. "But, if they had to choose the place they will live, of course they will live in the Philippines, they will choose it. Definitely."

Ray, who has been in Qatar six years, said he earns "three or four times more" in Doha than he would back home. Outside the Damascus International Gents Salon, hair stylist Jim, 27, said he earns around 4,000 Qatari riyals a month ($1,100, 1,030 euros). Back home he would earn the equivalent of $190 (180 euros) at a barber shop, he said. Twenty-five-year-old Sunshine, who works in promotions, had never left the Philippines before heading to Qatar. Now she has been in Doha for three years. "It's better to leave first from the Philippines to earn money and then after a few years... you can go back," she said.

Winston Q8 clinics

Apart from the issue with the poor treatment, Filipinos migrants have been facing certification problems. According to a Filipino local newspaper, Overseas Filipino workers applying for jobs in Kuwait pay the P5,500 fee to a certification firm before they are examined by the eight accredited clinics. Winston Q8 has collected more than P100 million from 20,000 Filipino workers deployed to Kuwait from August 2016 to February 2017 despite the issuance of Department of Health Circular No. 2016-0627 on Sept 23, 2016 that prohibited the collection of excessive fees for medical examinations for workers bound for Kuwait.

Winston Q8 continues to defy the DOH circular and violate provisions of RA 8042 as amended, which prohibits the monopoly of a cluster of clinics to conduct physical-medical exams for certain receiving countries. Recently, the Department of Health was urged to revoke the accreditation of eight clinics affiliated with Winston Q8 - a Bonifacio Global City-based firm that is allegedly a front of extremist Islamic State (IS) members operating in the country.

The local clinics should have their DOH accreditation withdrawn for participating in the illegal medical examination scheme implemented by Winston Q8 Certification System that is being linked to captured alleged IS agent Husayn Al-Dhafiri. They could also be held liable for violating provisions of the Migrant Worker's Act, or Republic Act 8042 as amended by RA 10022. This was the call made by some recruitment agencies after National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) and Bureau of Immigration (BI) agents arrested Al-Dhafiri at the Winston Q8 office in Taguig City. - Agencies