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Postcard from Saudi Arabia – Filipinos: Unsung Heroes of the Kingdom

December 6, 2014

Filipina nurses

Yesterday evening I paid one of my rare visits to my nearest mall – the one underneath the giant bottle opener that is the Kingdom Tower. Since the hotel restaurant was closed on Fridays I decided to treat myself to a Big Mac – just what you need to feed a cold.

The guy who served me had probably been at work for eight hours or more. Yet he was the most cheerful, positive and charming person I’d met for days. Not just to me but to the overweight, sour-faced, spoilt-looking eight-year-old who wanted to swap the barbecue sauce that came with his chicken nuggets for ketchup.

The guy was from the Philippines. Not for the first time it occurred to me that the Filipinos are the unsung heroes of modern Saudi Arabia, and have been for as long as I’ve coming to the Kingdom. Without them, the country would struggle to get by as it does today.

I don’t want this post to come over as a “you’re a better man than me, Gunga-Din” paean to an ethnic group who are fairly well down the social pecking order. I admire and respect them.

The Filipino men are the waiters, the drivers, the mechanics, the technicians, the draftsmen, the guys in black waistcoats and bow ties who bring you your coffee in smart offices. They’re also doctors and engineers. The women are the hospital nurses, the secretaries and the housemaids. Over a million of them are currently working in the Kingdom.

I first worked with Filipinos in the Eighties. One of them was a superb cartoonist, and his work still decorates my home in England. They were diligent, hard-working and loyal. Not all of them were as outgoing as my guy in MacDonald’s, but they were all worth their weight in gold. My small daughter became so attached to Benjie, the girl who cared for her in her crèche, that we seriously considered trying to bring her home with us when left the Kingdom.

The vast majority of them are artistic, fun-loving and cheerful. They put up with a lot. Most  – even those in similar jobs – earn a fraction of what a westerner can. Often they put up with pretty grim accommodation. Most of their earnings go back to the Philippines to support their extended families. So much do they depend on their Saudi income that they seem to arrive with an inbuilt deference.

As a westerner, you would have to know a Filipino pretty well before they would call you by your first name instead of “sir”, an appellation we British associate with a more class-conscious age. The fear of losing their jobs can result in their being terrified of making a mistake, so perhaps unfairly they have a reputation of lacking initiative and creativity. In fact I’ve found them to be highly resourceful, especially when it comes to making few riyals on the side to boost their remittances.

Could it be that centuries of colonisation and the years of brutal oppression by the Japanese in World War 2 have left them short of self-confidence as a nation? I don’t know. But I do sense that with their many talents their best days are yet to come.

Those above them in the pecking order often treat them with arrogance, working them long hours, clicking their fingers to summon them and, in the case of housemaids, abusing them. Yet if you see groups of guys in the mall, they will be laughing and joking in stacatto Tagalog. The same goes for the girls who work in the hospitals. Their sing-song voices remind you of the dawn chorus. Ever cheerful.

An example: recently I was doing a workshop on creating positive attitudes at work. The assistant who looks after me when I visit this particular institution is a Filipina in her early forties. Every time I go there we manage to have a chat about this and that. On this occasion she told me that she had breast cancer and had recently undergone a double mastectomy. No self-pity. She told me she couldn’t understand why her colleagues were expecting her to be an emotional mess. She took her illness and operation in her stride, and was as positive when I saw her as she’d ever been before. She put her outlook down to her faith in God and to her natural optimism. I was so impressed that I asked her to come into the workshop and close it by saying a few words about her experience. She carried it off like a professional. She could and should be a trainer, yet most likely she’ll stay in the niche assigned to her by virtue of her nationality

The Filipinos in Saudi Arabia are no saints. The Philippines can be a pretty violent country, and I’m told that here some of them form into little mafias who can be pretty ruthless if their interests are threatened. But I’ve never seen that. What I do see is a bunch of hard-working and resilient people with a great sense of humour who make many sacrifices for their families. It must be hard not being able to see your kids more than once every two years, even if skype alleviates the separation somewhat. And I can only imagine how they must feel as yet another typhoon approaches their homeland.

All the while they work away in the knowledge that the government is putting increasing pressure on employers to replace them with Saudi nationals.

Yet if I was working for the government, of all the expatriate groups I might seek to put on planes home, the Filipinos would be the last, and the most missed. They, more than any other ethnic group, are the glue that holds the Kingdom together. And for that reason, they deserve the appreciation and respect of their hosts.

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