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Filipino migrant workers queue up for Covid-19 tests in Hong Kong. Photo: AP

As Philippines battles Covid-19, what happened to vow of ‘no migrant left behind’?

  • Long considered ‘heroes’ for their role in boosting the economy with remittances, OFWs say they’re now left in the lurch as Manila tightens its borders
  • But those who make it home face other problems, including a lack of jobs in a country which has been in lockdown for over a year now

For nearly two months now, Elena (not her real name) has been stuck in Lagos after her contract as an office employee ended. She is among a group of overseas Filipino workers in Nigeria hoping to catch a flight home.

“On April 7, we bought economy-class tickets with the Ethiopian Airlines. The only available flight was April 30 because of a travel cap” of 2,500 daily arrivals imposed by the Philippines, said Elena, who did not want to disclose her name.

Two days before they were due to travel, Elena said the workers each paid US$100 to take a Covid-19 swab test. But when they tried to check in online the next day, “we learned that our flight was cancelled”.

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The Philippine government had imposed new travel restrictions due to the surge in Covid-19 cases around Manila. To alter their travel dates, the workers have to pay Ethiopian Airlines a US$1,100 rebooking fee, which “we can’t afford”, said Elena, who is in her forties.

Elena’s predicament is a part of a growing crisis for President Rodrigo Duterte’s government. Long hailed as heroes, overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) are now being left in the lurch as Manila struggles with containing the pandemic.
The Philippines has a total caseload of over 1.1 million, making it the second-worst affected nation in Southeast Asia. It has spent more than a year in various stages of lockdowns.


Hungry Filipinos in lockdown share food as nation’s Covid-19 caseload surpasses 1 million

Hungry Filipinos in lockdown share food as nation’s Covid-19 caseload surpasses 1 million

“There are more than 10 million Filipinos abroad at any given time,” said Troy Dooley, programme head of the Philippine chapter at the International Organization for Migration (IOM), a leading inter-governmental group.

An “unprecedented” 791,623 Filipino workers were repatriated last year, Dooley said.

Since the Philippines created an aggressive labour migration policy three decades ago, there has never been such a mass return.

The IOM interviewed 8,332 of the returnees and released its findings on Thursday in a survey titled, The Covid-19 impact assessment on returned overseas Filipino workers.

Millions of Filipinos work abroad. Photo: Reuters

The results were sobering:

• Close to 60 per cent of returnees came from five places: the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait and Hong Kong

• Returnees were mostly in their mid-30s (with 51 per cent of them male), who had at least 10 years of schooling and had been providing for five to eight member-households on monthly salaries averaging from 20,000-50,000 pesos (US$400-1,000)

• Female returnees in two places – Hong Kong and Kuwait – outnumbered males by 82 per cent and 75 per cent, respectively

• 59 per cent of OFWs returned due to the pandemic: their contract was not renewed or they could not find another job, or their employer used it as a reason to fire them

• 48 per cent said they wanted to be OFWs again 

• 38 per cent of them came from Metro Manila and surrounding provinces, which is also the hardest hit by the pandemic, while 15 per cent came from the southern island of Mindanao

• 59 per cent of them failed to get their separation pay and 83 per cent of them remained jobless three months after their return.

Health officers spray disinfectant as overseas Filipino workers disembark at a seaport in Cebu City on May 23, 2020. Photo: EPA-EFE

Dooley said while the results were bleak, there was one bright spot.

Data showed that remittances to the Philippines in 2020 had not significantly fallen, despite earlier predictions by the World Bank and foreign and local analysts that it would drop by up to 20 per cent.

The reality was that “the actual drop was only 0.8 per cent”, Dooley said, from US$33.5 billion in 2019 – contributing nearly 10 per cent of the GDP – to US$33.2 billion.

The reason: while most returnees came from Saudi Arabia which hosts the largest number of OFWs, a large chunk of remittances traditionally comes from the United States, which in 2018 contributed a third, or US$11.4 billion, of the US$33.5 billion total.

A Manila resident receives money from a relative abroad at a remittance centre in Makati City. Photo: Reuters


Even as the government has already spent 5 billion pesos (US$104 million) bringing home 519,566 migrant workers, with other OFWs self-repatriating or being sent home by employers, labour secretary Silvestre Bello told President Rodrigo Duterte on April 19 that at least 50,000 Filipinos were still stranded abroad.

According to Hans Cacdac, administrator of the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA), the government needed 9.8 billion pesos (US$204 million) to make that happen.

However, a proposed congressional measure for pandemic assistance only allots 4.5 billion pesos (US$93 million) to help OFWs.

Elena said she had appealed to lawmakers on social media “many times” for help, including foreign secretary Teodoro Locsin Jnr and presidential palace officials, but no one replied to her.

“Philippines is our country too,” she wrote in one message on Twitter. “Please inform us, OFWs, what your plan is. Are OFWs simply going to be banned from returning? We have no more work … please help us, thank you.”

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Elena said she was not aware that as early as March 19, Cacdac had advised OFWs on a public Facebook page devoted to his posts as OWWA chief, to put off coming home.

“Please delay your return home to our beloved country, because of the spike in new Covid-19 cases and the increase in the number (of returning travellers now billeted) in hotel quarantine facilities,” he wrote in one of his advisories.

Cacdac never made his plea official by posting it on the official OWWA website. He briefly mentioned it during a virtual press briefing on April 21, which only Bloomberg picked up.

In the same briefing, Cacdac also stated that the government could not yet help stranded OFWs because it would “run out of money” by May, which was the reason he was asking them to delay coming home.

On May 19, an anchor from CNN Philippines connected with Cacdac via Zoom and asked about the pleas for help by OFWs in African countries.

The OWWA chief supplied a hot line number. Asked about this, Elena said Cacdac “promised that OWWA would help us and we should just wait for their call back”.

The Philippines is struggling to respond to an influx of migrant workers returning to a country with low employment prospects amid Covid-19. EPA


For labour migration expert Froilan Malit, Jnr, the fact that Manila has left thousands of OFWs stranded abroad, despite Duterte’s vow there would be “no migrant left behind”, came as no surprise.

“I don’t think the government was built to deal with this crisis, institutionally,” said Malit, who works out of Dubai for the Migration Policy Centre at the European University Institute.

Malit, who is also an Associate Professor at Zayed University’s Institute for Social and Economic Research, said that while Manila extended comparatively more support to OFWs than other countries did for their migrant workers, the response was still inadequate and showed the “degree of institutional constraints … and that gap between rhetoric and reality”.

Filipinos go hungry amid ‘double whammy’ of job losses, rising prices

For one, the government’s distribution of cash aid to OFWs through its “Akap”, or Embrace, programme was uneven, he noted.

Each distressed OFW was supposed to get US$200, but this prompted a lot of complaints on social media because a cap on recipients was imposed per country, so not everyone could benefit from the aid.

For instance in Dubai, where some 14,000 Filipinos reported themselves as displaced, the limit was inexplicably set at 10,000.

Malit said most Filipinos in the UAE decided to stay on despite a wage slash by their employers because of the lack of job prospects back home.

“For those semi-skilled and skilled, they can better optimise their skills and talents here,” he said.

OFWs were also anticipating that the UAE would overcome the Covid-19 crisis sooner and more jobs would open, Malit said. He added that the UAE government had already approved the use of several Covid-19 vaccines, and that being vaccinated in UAE’s biggest city, Dubai, was “like ordering an ice cream”.
People wait to receive a Covid-19 vaccine shot in Paranaque, Philippines. Photo: Reuters

Ruby Ann Doctolero, 31, was among the lucky ones who was able to return home from the UAE and even received the government’s Akap cash aid.

The former babysitter told This Week in Asia that her Arab employers had given her a return ticket when they decided to wait out the pandemic in Germany.

The cash aid lasted only a month, she said. Now pregnant, she has decided to shelve her plans to apply as a welder in South Korea, where she said women were preferred for the job.

But first she would need to learn welding, which she found was not that easy because the state-funded agency Tesda, which taught the programme, still charged fees.

Doctolero and thousands of OFWs displaced by the pandemic have found themselves saddled with other financial problems.

Besides having mouths to feed, many like her have defaulted on loan payments for their dream homes, the very reason they went abroad in the first place.

The IOM survey found “an alarming 83 per cent of OFWs were still unemployed three months after their return to the Philippines”.