Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra on Wednesday ordered the National Prosecution Service to give priority to cases involving local government officials who continue to refuse entry to repatriated overseas Filipino workers who have been cleared of COVID-19.
READ: LGUs can’t bar returning OFWs
“The President has already given instructions to all LGUs to accept the returning 24,000 OFWs to their hometowns. If LGU officials continue to defy this directive, they may be held administratively and criminally liable for violations of the Bayanihan Act,” Guevarra said.
After reports said that the workers were languishing in isolation centers well past the 14-day quarantine period, President Rodrigo Duterte ordered the Department of Labor and Employment, the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration and other involved agencies to send the 24,000 OFWs home in a week.
READ: Lockdown takes emotional toll on overseas workers
One such situation played out at a resort converted into an OFWs quarantine facility in Dasmarinas, Cavite, where the disgruntled repatriates made placards out of carton boxes to beg the government to allow them to go home to their own provinces.
“Please let us go home! Please don't put us in quarantine when we go back to our provinces! We have suffered enough in here! Have pity on us LGU!” said a sign carried by Gary Santo Tomas, one of several OFWs still in the facility.
Officials of the Coast Guard, who are tasked to guard the OFWs and bring them to quarantine facilities, and the Dasmarinas city government had yet to comment as of presstime.
Duterte said the workers should be allowed to return home to their families and loved ones “in the name of humanity” and because it is their constitutional right to travel and go home.
READ: 300k jobless OFWs returning
The President warned LGUs not to obstruct the movement of people because they run the risk of being sued criminally.
In a radio interview Wednesday, Interior Secretary Eduardo Año advised LGUs to allow the OFWs to undergo home quarantine, instead of isolating them away from their residences.
Año said that although the returning OFWs are already negative for COVID-19 based on test results they obtained after undergoing a 14-day mandatory quarantine, LGUs may impose an additional quarantine.
This does not mean, however, that LGUs can deny the OFWs entry into their areas of jurisdiction.
DILG Undersecretary Jonathan Malaya, meanwhile, said LGUs are encouraged to waive any fees for medical certificates being requested by stranded individuals who are already preparing to return to their hometowns or provinces.
He said rather than impose excessive fees, it would be better that LGUs issue medical certificates free of charge as a way to help the stranded individuals.
Also on Wednesday, Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III said he has formed a task group to help expedite the movement of OFWs from various quarantine facilities to their respective home destinations and facilitate the speedy processing of outbound workers.
Bello said he ordered the designation of additional personnel from DOLE’s regional and attached agencies to beef up the manpower requirement of the OWWA to ensure the smooth land and air transport and monitoring of OFWs from various quarantine facilities to their respective home destinations.
The move came following a directive from President Duterte to immediately send home all OFWs who tested negative for COVID-19.
About 24,000 OFWs have been kept in government quarantine facilities since their return to the country. Only 7,500 had been sent home as of Wednesday, OWWA officials said.
Most workers had complained of the slow release of their results and clearances after weeks and even months of quarantine and tests.
In an administrative order, Bello also formed a separate task group to ease the processing of outbound land and sea-based workers whose country of destination has lifted the restrictions on the employment of foreign workers.
Bello said the government did not intend to inconvenience the returning OFWs with their prolonged quarantine and delayed test results. “DOLE and OWWA simply had no control over the testing and issuance of clearances,” he said.
Senator Christopher Lawrence Go called on the different government agencies to assist all locally stranded individuals in Metro Manila and other parts of the country so that they can safely return to their home provinces amid the COVID-19 crisis.
He also urged them to ensure that health protocols are followed and proper coordination between national agencies and local government units are implemented when transporting these stranded people.
During the Senate committee on health hearing held on Tuesday, Go also appealed to LGUs to prepare for the return of stranded individuals, especially OFWs who wish to go back to their home provinces.
In a statement, Go said that he “sympathizes with the OFWs who are still stranded in Metro Manila and are in quarantine facilities for more than the prescribed 14-day period despite complying with health protocols and having been tested negative for COVID-19 already.”
Go added that the delay in the release of their health certifications has caused an unnecessary burden to them as some OFWs are now even experiencing depression.
READ: Local Roundup: Save OFWsREAD: OFW remittances may decline by 6.9% — ING
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