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My Lords, I too congratulate my noble friend Lord Hylton on securing this debate. No one in this House needs persuading of his long-standing and tenacious commitment to human rights. It is characteristic of him not to have lost sight of the plight of suffering Filipinos. I hope the Minister will respond to the recommendations that he has made, and particularly to the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, that the Philippines should be officially designated as a country of concern. That would be a positive outcome of today’s debate.
I have a non-pecuniary interest as a trustee of the Arise Foundation, an anti-slavery charity with a brilliant team that does superb work in various countries of origin for trafficked people, including the Philippines.
In addition to the human rights abuses in the Philippines itself, we would do well to remember the many thousands of Filipinos working abroad who suffer exploitation. I was shocked when I first learned that over 10% of the entire GDP of the Filipino economy is remitted back to the Philippines from abroad from an estimated 2.3 million overseas Filipino workers. The principal countries of destination are: Saudi Arabia, which takes 25.4% of these workers; the UAE, 15.3%, Hong Kong, 6.5%; and Qatar, 5.5%.
I know from work by the Arise Foundation that many of these Filipinos are exploited and enslaved in unimaginably cruel and inhumane conditions. I go so far as to say that the stories of Filipina women enslaved in the Middle East are the most extreme and unrepeatable I have ever heard. The situation is Qatar is so bad that the Philippine embassy has a rescue shelter attached to it which is reportedly always full. Can the Minister tell us whether the dire and well-documented human rights conditions of Filipino overseas workers in Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar feature in our discussions with the respective Governments?
While considering the difficulties faced by Filipinos abroad, we also need to look closer to home. Even if they find work, there is no guarantee that they can remit their earnings back to their families. What measures are in place to ensure that companies do not charge unfair and exorbitant fees to transfer money home? During the passage of the modern slavery legislation, my noble friend Lord Hylton and I divided your Lordships’ House on the issue of domestic migrant labour. Many Filipinos are tricked by unscrupulous employment agencies who prey on their hopes for a better life. Some take on huge debts to pay unaffordable agency fees which have to be paid back once work has begun—a well-worn pattern leading to debt bondage in the destination country.
The UK is a significant destination for Filipinos seeking employment as domestic workers; sadly, the Philippines is never far down the list of source nations for modern slavery victims of our own national referral mechanism. What are we doing to disrupt the unethical recruitment corridor that clearly exists between the Philippines and the UK? The United Kingdom has a memorandum of understanding with the Government of the Philippines to enable the recruitment of nurses and other health professionals. In 2018 the number of Philippines-born workers in the National Health Service was 15,400. What guarantees can the Minister give that our recruitment methods are ethical and respect the communities from which these workers are sourced?
Arise works with front-line charities in the Philippines which continue to do superb work in difficult circumstances. Many of them have stood bravely against Duterte’s Administration, as described so powerfully and so well by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, a few moments ago. Unfortunately, bilateral funding for work such as theirs has decreased due to lack of confidence in that Government. Many of the charities working in the Philippines are struggling for support. I hope the Minister will assure us that, in allocating UK aid, we will not make the mistake of conflating worthy front-line work with a wayward Government, and will not falter in our commitment to the wonderful Filipino people.