The government expects some 300,000 overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) to return to the country this year as their host countries—under lockdowns because of the COVID-19 pandemic—send migrant workers home, Interior and Local Government Secretary Eduardo Año said Monday.
“For the whole year, we are expecting that 300,000 OFWs will come home,” Año said in Filipino. “The whole world is under lockdown. They are sending home migrant workers, not just from the Philippines, but other countries, too. This is our chance to show the importance of OFWs when they get home.”
But repatriated workers so far have not fared well, spending up to two months in isolation centers rather than the required 14 days because of delays in their COVID-19 testing.
Since April 13, returning OFWs have been required to undergo mandatory quarantine inside government facilities, meaning hotels and other accommodations accredited by the Department of Tourism. Since April 27, returning OFWs were required to undergo reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) tests for the coronavirus.
Since May 6, the government has identified the need to prioritize testing for some 20,000 quarantined OFWs. Nearly three weeks later, thousands remain in quarantine.
If unresolved, the problem figures to worsen through June, when some 40,000 more OFWs are expected to return. Secretary Carlito Galvez, who heads the national task force on COVID-19 response, has said this could overwhelm the country's current quarantine facilities.
But Año said such problems have been solved, and the government will escort some 24,000 repatriated workers who tested negative to their home provinces between Monday and Wednesday.
Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III made the same assurance, one week after President Rodrigo Duterte ordered all concerned agencies, including the Philippine Coast Guard, the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) and the Deaprtment of Transportation, to arrange the daily trips for 8,000 OFWs through the Parañaque Integrated Terminal Exchange (PITX) and the NAIA Terminal.
“This is part of President Duterte's commitment to the safe return of OFWs to their families, as arranged by the Philippine government,” Bello said in a statement.
The workers will need to present their quarantine passes from the Bureau of Quarantine or from the Coast Guard’s negative list to qualify for the return program.
From May 5, bus trips to Bicol, Ilocos, Cagayan Valley, CAR, and Central Luzon will be made available while flights to Cagayan de Oro, Tacloban, Bacolod, Davao, Cebu, Ilo-ilo and Zamboanga will be arranged for flights until Wednesday, Bello said
More bus rides and flights will be made available, he added.
Recruitment and migration consultant Emmanuel Geslani, however, expressed concern that the government may not be able to provide jobs to returning OFWs affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, since the fund allotted for displaced workers is only P1.5 billion.
The Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) assured displaced OFWs that the government would provide livelihood assistance to those affected by the global pandemic by giving them cash assistance to help them set up small businesses.
Bello said the focus of the government is to help OFWs who are already in the country and those who were stranded because of the pandemic.
“Our immediate program is to provide livelihood to them and we will focus on OFWs who are back in the country and those who were not able to leave,” he said.
OFW-beneficiaries have a choice to put up their own business or they can also plant crops.
“We will provide them livelihood projects. They can choose any business they can put up their own carinderia, sari-sari store, or to plant. We will give them livelihood assistance of P20,,000. If they need a bigger amount, we can lend them money, interest-free,” he added.
Geslani said the continuous lockdown of the Middle East countries, Japan and some countries in Europe will greatly contribute to massive losses in OFW deployment for this year and until 2021.
“With the continuing lockdown of our main markets in the Middle East and the huge number of displaced workers in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait UAE and Qatar our main labor markets, around 100,000 OFWs have been affected the pandemic with many of their jobs lost through closure of establishments,” he said.
He said that seafarers who have returned to the country now number 30,000 and more 40,000 are expected in the month of June with charter flights and cruise liners sailing to the country.
“Expected losses in the sea-based sector is at 100,000 [jobs], which includes cruise ship crews, general cargo, containers ships and oil-rigs support vessels,” Geslani said.
He said cruise lines are not expected to sail until September or October in 2020, thus Filipino seafarers will wait until that time if they are recalled. Operations will start slowly with only a few of the estimated 200 cruise ships sailing all over the world.
A community leader in Hong Kong, meanwhile, said 5,000 Filipinos there have lost their jobs due to the pandemic.
Some expatriates who employ Filipinos had difficulty returning to Hong Kong due to pandemic travel bans, said Dolores Balladares-Pelaez, chairperson of the United Filipinos in Hong Kong.
Hong Kong's entertainment centers, which provide work to many Filipinos, also remained shut to prevent the spread of COVID-19, she told radio dzMM.
“Many of our compatriots lost their jobs. I know around 5,000 Filipinos; not just domestic workers, but residents, too,” she said in Filipino.
Senator Christopher Go, meanwhile, urged the DOLE to immediately carry out its plan to take repatriated workers who tested negative for COVID-19 back to their home provinces.
Go said the effort dovetailed with the Balik Probinsya, Bagong Pag-asa (BP2) Program that seeks to decongest Metro Manila by encouraging development in the provinces. The immediate phase of the program, Go said, was to help Filipinos stranded in Metro Manila and other urban centers to return to their home provinces.
Go reiterated his call for the creation of the Department of Overseas Filipino Workers, saying that its establishment would cater to the pressing needs of overseas and repatriated Filipinos, especially in times of crisis.