Hundreds of Filipino workers were left stranded at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport Friday, as two Philippine Airlines (PAL) flights flew practically empty to the Middle East after the government suspended the deployment of workers to Saudi Arabia.
PAL spokesperson Cielo Villaluna said the airline regrets that it was unable to accept overseas Filipino worker (OFW) passengers on its flights PR-5654 (Manila-Riyadh) and PR-5682 (Manila-Dammam) because of the suspension.
Villaluna said 283 OFWs were unable to board PAL's Manila-Riyadh flight, while 120 OFWs were not accepted on the Manila-Dammam flight on Friday.
"As a result, our flights to Riyadh and Dammam departed empty except for three Dammam-bound non-OFW passengers," she said.
PAL said it decided to continue the flights so it can serve hundreds of Filipinos who urgently need to fly home to the Philippines on the return flights from Riyadh and Dammam.
"We had not received any official government order directing airlines not to accept OFWs bound for Saudi Arabia, but we complied with verbal instructions from the immigration authorities who are no longer accepting OFWs for travel," Villaluna said.
"We have appealed with the government on behalf of our OFW passengers and hope for a positive resolution," she added.
Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III instructed the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) to temporarily suspend the deployment of OFWs to Saudi Arabia, after learning that Filipinos were being required by their employers or foreign recruitment agencies to shoulder the cost of health and safety measures against COVID-19 and insurance premiums upon their entry into the kingdom.
Earlier, the Department of Foreign Affairs had said that OFWs who were not vaccinated with Saudi-approved vaccines would have to undergo swab tests and a seven-day quarantine upon arrival in that country.
Vaccines made by Pfizer, Astrazeneca, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson were the only ones approved by Saudi Arabia.
The cost of the institutional quarantine and insurance is 3,500 Saudi rials or $1,000 (around P47,000)
POEA chief Bernard Olalia said the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) will be assisting around 403 stranded OFWs at NAIA after they were barred from boarding their flights on Friday.
“The OWWA is ready to provide them with hotel accommodation and food,” he said in an online forum on Friday.
The POEA chief said they are coordinating with their counterparts in Saudi Arabia to clarify reports that OFWs bound for the host country are being required to shoulder the cost of COVID-19 health and safety protocols as well as insurance premiums.
He said that an official declaration from Saudi Arabia that employers will shoulder such costs would resolve the issue.
LBS E-Recruitment Solutions Inc., which recruits Filipino workers for jobs in Saudi Arabia, said the suspension was illegal because the Labor secretary alone cannot stop the deployment of workers, which must be authorized by the POEA governing board.
The company’s president, Lito B. Soriano, also questioned the basis for issuing the deployment ban, saying there were no concrete facts or data that would justify the suspension order.
“The reports should have been independently cross-validated first before the internal memo was issued. Also, the POEA and DOLE could have called and should have called the Saudi Embassy or Consulate beforehand,” he said.
“The suspension of deployment of OFWs to Saudi Arabia needs to be reconsidered by our secretary of Department of Labor immediately,” Soriano said.
He also urged the POEA Governing Board to convene immediately to reconsider the suspension and the board and hear the voices of OFWs, their families and the licensed recruitment sector.
Also on Friday, Senator Christopher Go pushed again for the creation of a department focused on migrant workers.
Go co-sponsored Senate Bill No. 2234 which, if passed, will establish the Department of Migrant Workers and Overseas Filipinos. This is a consolidated version of his earlier proposed measure that aims to create the Department of Overseas Filipinos.