"We have another crisis coming up."
Hailed as the country’s “bagong bayani,” our overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) are now beset with very serious problems because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Around 10 percent of the country’s population (or over 10.37 million Filipinos) is composed of OFWs, according to the Inter-Agency Task Force on COVID-19 (IATF) as reported by South China Morning Post. Based on the 2019 OFW survey of the Philippine Statistics Authority, between April to September of the same year, there were 2.2 million OFWs; females comprised 56 percent and males, 44 percent; remittances for the period amounted to P211.9 billion; and for that year, personal remittances accounted for 9.3 percent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP); and the top destinations were Saudi Arabia—22.4 percent, United Arab Emirates—13.2 percent, Hong Kong—7.5 percent, Taiwan—6.7 percent.
Because of the pandemic, there are reports that hundreds of thousands of OFWs who have lost their jobs now want to come home. In a gulf news report on June 10 said that 300,000 jobless OFWs in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are expected to come home within the next three (3) months. On the other hand, IATF Chief Carlito Galvez Jr. reportedly said that we are expecting 500,000 OFWs to be back within the year. Any which way we look at this, this is huge.
So far, according to Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), 8,301 Filipinos overseas contracted COVID-19, recoveries were at 5,055, and deaths were at 506 as of June 22, 2020. Moreover, of the 55,859 OFWs who have returned home as of June 7, 1,376 were COVID-19. 623 of them were admitted in health facilities, 267 recovered, and one died. Moreover, at least five OFWs committed suicide because of desperation after months of waiting to be repatriated home. The latest was a Filipina crew member of a cruise ship who committed suicide on June 9 in her cabin.
Because they no longer have money, some of our “bagong bayani” have resorted to eating rejected food. Others are reported to sell blood so they can eat.
According to IATF, 62,022 overseas Filipinos have come home from May 3 to June 22. And we know how messy the problems were in relation with their quarantine period. At least 24,000 experienced delays and inefficiencies in testing and the issuance of their certificates. Many OFWs waited for more than one week to get a swab test and some who could no longer wait paid P4,500 per swab test from the Philippine Red Cross (PRC). After getting tested, they had to wait for several weeks before test results were released. Even as they received news of their negative test results, they remained stranded for several weeks because of delays in the issuance of their test result certificates by the Philippine Red Cross (PRC). The certificates were required before they could be released from quarantine.
Many repatriated OFWs had to spend their own money while on quarantine. Official guidelines say that OFWs’ expenses during quarantine, testing, and transportation will all be paid for by government until all necessary health protocols are completed. Yet, some quarantined OFWs paid P500 per meal (room service because they were not allowed to go out). There are those who had to shell out thousands of pesos for transportation for their COVID-19 tests. Many complained that the money they brought home for their families have almost been used up during their prolonged quarantine.
Some OFWs who had no more money resorted to begging for food and necessities from the public on social media. A 42-year-old female OFW from Kuwait committed suicide on April 26 while on quarantine that started on April 4. She was supposed to finish by April 19 or one week before she took her own life. Mental health issues such as depression are real problems among our “bagong bayani.”
There was also the issue of exposure to risks of contracting COVID-19. According to OFWs, the exposure happened during their stay in quarantine venues that are congested. In one motel, a COVID+ couple had to wait for a few days before they were brought to the hospital. There was no social distancing in vehicles that transport them, also in airports for those flying to provinces, and in airplanes during flights home.
To top it all, OFWs suffered from inefficient and unresponsive government offices mandated to look after them. There were numerous complaints of OFW inquiries not being responded to, or given the round-around. Many complaints were against the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA).
If these problems happened to those OFWs who have come home, how prepared is our government for the 300,000 to 500,000 who are expected to be home this year? Do we have enough facilities to house them if they are going to be quarantined? Does the Department of Health have enough testing kits, other needed supplies, and human resources to administer and process the tests?
I dare say that the next major problem we will have in relation with COVID-19 pandemic will be about the repatriation of our OFWs.
Most important is the problem of reintegration. Most OFWs will come home with empty pockets because they have been out of work for months. How are they and their families going to be helped? Will they have jobs here? Is there a plan for their retooling, retraining, and reintegration?
If government will not act proactively, we have another crisis coming up. Where is the game plan for our OFWs?
@bethangsioco on Twitter Elizabeth Angsioco on Facebook