Without efficient and steady relief, mass starvation and morbidity awaits returning 420,000 OFWs hit by COVID-19 recession — Migrante International warns

Even before the outbreak of COVID-19, all signs have already been pointing to a global economic downturn. With most part of the world’s activities on a standstill, the International Monetary Fund declared a global recession which is expected to cause long-lasting damage as waves of bankruptcies and retrenchments leave multitudes in desperation. Poverty-stricken countries like the Philippines are among the hardest-hit by economic paralysis. Over 420,000 OFWs are likely to return back to the Philippines within the next several months and about US$5 Billion worth of remittances per year are expected to be extinguished in its wake. 

To make matters worse, no comprehensive plan has been laid out by the Duterte regime to address the immediate and long-term effects of the crisis on OFWs. The promised US$200 cash aid announced by Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III last month is already marred by tensions after POLO and OWWA officials in Riyadh drove out distressed OFWs while numerous others were made to cast lots on food items distributed chaotically by embassy personnel. Meanwhile, OFW families back home are troubled by delayed government relief, police brutality and Duterte’s shoot-to-kill order. 

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PHOTO: CNN Philippines

President Duterte’s late night ramblings against critics offer no reassurance to OFWs. He is only wasting TV air time on idle talk at the expense of taxpayers’ money. As the crisis aggravates further, the Duterte regime’s Labour Export Programme (LEP) can no longer salvage an economy that has systematically cemented its vulnerability to external shocks. Duterte’s LEP is bound to fail since it relinquishes economic advancement at the homefront through national industrialization and genuine agrarian development.  It has made the economy heavily reliant on dollar remittances to buoy consumption since local workers are plagued by slavish wages and depressed purchasing power. 

Unemployment in the Philippines is set to worsen with the expected return of 420,000 OFWs. Without welfare assistance, mass starvation awaits displaced OFWs who will bear the full weight of Duterte’s crippling lockdown. Merely telling people to STAY HOME without free mass testing and treatment will never arrest the pandemic. Even more so with food shortages. From confining themselves indoors to doing physical distancing, the people have already mastered all forms of precautionary measures, but these are only meant to give the Duterte government enough time to break off social unrest. Feeling the pressure but almost too late, the government is already eyeing mass testing in the latter half of April. 

OFWs are among the most vulnerable sectors hit by the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. So instead of enforcing crackdown on legitimate dissent and silencing his critics, the Duterte regime better treat this crisis seriously as a concrete public health issue that is gravely impacting OFWs. Overseas retrenchments have left thousands of OFWs stranded. Duterte’s profanity on national television will in no way contribute to the welfare and safety of Filipino migrant workers. Displaced OFWs deserve mass testing, decent quarantine facilities, free medical and welfare assistance. Government aid and relief must be delivered to OFWs and their families upon their arrival, post-quarantine and consistently all throughout the entire duration of the lockdown. 

As in previous presidencies, the Duterte regime has been relentless in squeezing OFW pockets dry through state exactions. Now is the finest period in time when the government should step in and give back the hard-earned OFW money contributed to various national agencies which promised them support and security. If Duterte’s emergency NAP remains inutile in alleviating the people’s hardships, he may as well spare the Filipino people from further misery by resigning from his post. The anger of the Filipino people is past its boiling point, and it’s only a matter of time before it detonates on Duterte’s face. 

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Stop confusing OFWs on financial assistance – Migrants group urged Duterte

Migrante International has accused President Duterte of resorting to violence in order to cover-up for its incompetence in providing the Covid-19 assistance it promised to the Filipino people here and abroad. The group cited the confusion among overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) regarding the promised $200 financial support to those affected by the pandemic.

“It was DOLE Secretary Silvestro Bello himself who was the one who prematurely announced the assistance program without clarifying when it is going to be received by our kababayans abroad. This led to the confusion of OFWs who went to the embassy to seek clarification on the matter. The response they got was similar to the threat made by Duterte to those asking for food in Quezon City,” says Joanna Concepcion, chairperson of Migrante International.

Philippine Embassy officials in Saudi Arabia called the local police last Wednesday to drive out distressed Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) who trooped to the embassy in Riyadh. OFWs claim that they were yelled at and harassed by embassy officials and personnel.

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PHOTO: (1 April 2020) Embassy personnel and officials drove out distressed OFWs who were seeking clarification on the $200 cash aid promised by the Duterte government through Labour Secretary Silvestre Bello III.

Concepcion cited the official media release of Bello dated March 25, 2020, promising that the agency is targeting to provide the $200 assistance to about 70,000 Filipinos working abroad. The said announcement did not clarify that the agency is still drafting the guidelines for fund distribution.

“Up to now, DOLE has not provided any guidelines and consequently the funds they promised to distressed OFWs who were expecting the assistance a month ago. This is the problem with the Duterte government: they will give you false hope so they will look good to the media, then inflict police brutality when you want to avail of the promised assistance,” Concepcion lamented.

Migrante International likewise lambasted the confusing memorandum circulars issued by the embassies and consulates in the Middle East that were posted on their respective websites after the incident in Riyadh.

The Philippine Embassy in Abu Dhabi posted a memo on their website that only OWWA members who were infected and confirmed positive of COVID-19 virus are the ones who are eligible for financial assistance. “This is contrary to the statement of Secretary Bello, which promised to assist all OFWs displaced by the pandemic,” Concepcion exclaims.

While on the other hand, the Philippine Embassy in Riyadh clarified through its official statement last March 26, 2020, that they are only providing food assistance and not food allowance to OFWs affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The Duterte government is quick to blame the people in protesting for food and assistance while failing to see itself as the culprit behind the confusion. Then issues a shoot-to-kill order brought about by its incompetence,” Concepcion added.

Migrante asserts that the very same incident had transpired in San Roque, Quezon City, two days ago when people protested on the long-overdue assistance package that Secretary Bello promised to local workers as early as March 17, 2020.

“We condemn the shootdown order of President Duterte against those who are demanding what is due to them. We demand the government to stop creating confusion and mayhem due to their incompetence in assisting the Filipino people here and abroad. We also call on the people to remain steadfast and continue pressuring the government to do its job correctly in addressing the COVID-19 pandemic and stop its useless threats of terrorizing communities due to its failed promises to provide assistance,” Concepcion concluded.

 

On the harassment and dispersal of distressed OFWs by POLO & OWWA officials in Riyadh

Migrante International vehemently denounces POLO & OWWA officials in Saudi Arabia for mercilessly driving out distressed OFWs who trooped to the Philippine Embassy in Riyadh. The OFWs were merely seeking out the US$200 financial assistance promised to them by the Duterte government through Labour Secretary Silvestre Bello III. Instead, they were yelled at and harassed by embassy officials and personnel. Ground reports say that POLO officials even called the local police to disperse the distressed OFWs. 

Over a thousand OFWs have been flocking to the Philippine Overseas Labor Office (POLO) in Riyadh since the 29th of March after Bello announced that the Duterte government will give out $200 for every OFW whose job is affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Labor Attache Nasser S. Mustafa’s also vowed to provide food assistance in addition to the cash aid. However, OFWs complained that they were only made to fill up a “unified request for assistance” form. OFWs were then asked to group together into five (5) or up to nine (9) and after which, they were told to divide among themselves the distributed household items like soy sauce, vinegar, coffee, soap, etc. 

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Where is the $200 cash aid promised to them by the Duterte government? Distressed OFWs did not endure starvation and hours of distant travels just to draw their lots over a very small number of household items upon reaching the grounds of the Philippine Embassy. POLO and OWWA officials did not even bother to look for establishments or places to accommodate OFWs who were at risk of being caught by the 3pm curfew imposed by Saudi Arabian authorities due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The thousands of distressed OFWs going in droves to the Philippine Embassy show how serious and desperate they are in their dire conditions. Due to massive layoffs in the Middle East, many stranded OFWs are being added to the growing number of undocumented Filipino migrants in the region. We are calling on the Duterte government to immediately release the US$ 200 cash assistance its labour department promised to OFWs affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. With the negative impacts of the crisis expected to be prolonged further in the coming months, the Duterte government must come up with a more comprehensive assistance package for affected OFWs. 

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Migrante to Bello: where’s cash aid for Saudi OFWs?

“Where is the cash aid that you promised?” This is Migrante International’s question to Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III. We have received reports from Overseas Filipino Workers in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia that as of March 30, they have not yet been given the USD 200 (PhP 10,000) that was promised by Bello last March 25.

The OFWs said that because of the announcement, as well as Labor Attache Nasser S. Mustafa’s promise of food assistance, around 1,000 OFWs trooped to Philippine Overseas Labor Office (POLO) and Pinoy Supermarket in Riyadh on March 29, while around 300 OFWs did the same on March 30. Our kababayans were not given the financial assistance but were instead asked to fill up a “unified request for assistance.”

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PHOTO: Abante Tonite

While the food assistance promised by LabAtt Mustafa was given to the OFWs, the process of releasing it was marred by many problems. The POLO merely gave the OFWs a list of the food items that they will receive, and the OFWs had to pay 20 Saudi Riyals (PhP 250) for public transportation to go to a supermarket where they will claim the food items.

The list given to the OFWs had no control number and did not mention the number of items that the OFWs will receive. It merely stated the following: rice, noodles, sardines, soy sauce, vinegar, cooking oil, sugar, salt, coffee, corned beef, toothpaste, laundry soap, and bath soap. The manner of distribution was so disorganized that physical distancing among the claimants was not observed, with the OFWs fearing the spread of the Coronavirus.

It turned out that five (5) to nine (9) OFWs were asked to divide among themselves the food assistance that was released by the POLO. The OFWs were in hurry to go home because the curfew hours in Riyadh covers 3:00 pm to 6:00 am. The OFWs complained that the entire process was full of panic and stress for them.

Here is a video of OFWs trooping to the Riyadh POLO:
https://www.facebook.com/charlottesaudi/posts/3079637975413765


We expect that the food assistance provided to our OFWs in Saudi Arabia is different from the USD 200 that was promised by Bello. We demand that Bello’s cash assistance be released immediately.

At the same time, we condemn the manner by which the POLO released the food assistance to our OFWs. The process of providing assistance to our OFW should uphold transparency, physical distancing and ultimately the health and lives of our OFWs, whom we have always called the country’s “new heroes.” We wish to keep our OFWs alive and healthy, and not expose them any further to a virus that causes a deadly disease.

Bello, LabAtt Mustafa and the entire Philippine government should be reminded of the situation of our fellow Filipinos in Saudi Arabia. Because of Saudi government measures against the spread of the Coronavirus, around 20,000 do not work and are on standby as the companies that employ them have stopped operating and they are under a “no work, no pay” arrangement.

This is on top of the 2,500 distressed and undocumented OFWs in the country because of the Saudization policy, which prioritizes Saudi over foreign nationals in job hiring. There are also 15 Filipinos on death row and 1,000 Filipinos in jails in various parts of the country because of petty crimes.

By itself, the USD 200 cash assistance promised by Bello is not enough to cover the financial needs of OFWs in Saudi Arabia, especially of their families. The Philippine government should immediately release it to our OFWs and in an orderly way that observes physical distancing.

In fact, the Philippine government should come up with a more comprehensive assistance package for our OFWs who will not be working and will not receive wages in the coming weeks and months because of government measures against the spread of the Coronavirus.

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UAE OFWs need govt aid amidst pandemic — Migrante International

Migrante International calls on the government of Pres. Rodrigo Duterte to immediately release all promised financial assistance to Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) amidst the Covid-19 pandemic and to release more of such assistance packages in the coming weeks.

We have received reports that OFWs in the UAE have not received the USD 200 cash assistance promised by Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III on March 25. This, as OFWs in the UAE and their families in the Philippines increasingly face hunger and distress brought about by the economic dislocations caused by measures against the ongoing pandemic.

OFWs in the UAE say that the UAE government has carried out commendable measures — such as the national sterilization program and the creation of five-minute drive-through testing centers across the country. Despite this, OFWs say that they inevitably face various problems in their living and working conditions because of the government’s all-too-necessary #StayAtHome campaign.

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OFWs in the UAE report that:
> Many companies, especially in the airline industry, have laid off many workers, including Filipinos.
> Many OFWs face delays in their wages, because of the non-operation of the companies employing them.
> A significant number of OFWs are on forced unpaid leave, as their employer companies are not operating and they are under “no work, no pay” arrangements.
> Majority of OFWs stay together in cramped houses, rooms and work camps where they are forced to disregard physical distancing, making them vulnerable to the Coronavirus and its spread.
> Day by day, OFWs are running out of cash to pay for their house rent, food, and other basic necessities. They are also unable to send remittances to their families in the Philippines.

Meanwhile, the Philippine Embassy to the UAE has also suspended its frontline services, leaving OFWs to fend for themselves and rely on each other to survive.

OFWs in the UAE also express their concern over the Duterte government’s (mis)handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. They condemn the government’s militaristic approach to a public health crisis. They demand that the approach to the pandemic be de-militarized and that health responses should be increased many times over.

They are calling on Filipinos to learn from UAE and other countries and intensify calls for the government to carry out free mass testing among the population. They are also calling for the setting up of more hospitals, the hiring of more health professionals, and the procurement of Personal Protective Equipment, ventilators and other necessary medical facilities.

They say the president’s television addresses fail to reassure them about the situation in the country. The speech lacks clarity on what the government will actually do with the immense budget it has and how it will respond to the many demands being raised before it.

They demand government financial assistance to fellow Filipinos in the Philippines who will be unable to work because of measures against the pandemic. They also demand such assistance for OFW in the Philippines who are not getting remittances of their OFWs relatives abroad.

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“Duterte regime’s National Action Plan, a false military solution to a national health issue.” — Migrante International

Despite Duterte’s proclamation of placing the Philippines under a State of Public Health Emergency earlier this month, seeing any comprehensive response from this regime by addressing COVID-19 as a health issue is now even more remote than ever. All government agencies in charge of implementing the regime’s National Action Plan are either active or retired generals. None of them have medical expertise. What’s also striking and outrageous is that the technical working group formed by the Inter-Agency Task Force for the handling of donations was without any single representation from any public health agency or department. 

Unmoved by the public outcry against big politicians, senior government officials and other elite personalities who underwent VIP testing, Senator Koko Pimentel and other administration allies were seen roaming around, treating themselves at lavish parties while many in impoverished Filipino communities face threats of arrests, torture, beatings and other cruelties from lawless enforcers. A distressed PUI (person under investigation) in Nueva Ecija was violently arrested and dragged back to isolation. Other curfew violators reportedly ended up being locked in dog cages like in Laguna or being made to sit under the sun for an hour as in Parañaque City. 

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Today, a police officer in Quiapo, Manila was caught on film beating civilians with a stick after threatening to shoot anyone who goes out on the streets. Media entities reported that quarantine passes shown by residents in the area were not honored by the marauding policemen. These are the horrifying realities that retrenched OFWs are more likely to face upon their return to the country.

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OFWs are among the most gravely affected sectors in the COVID-19 pandemic. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic struck, a great number of stranded OFWs have already been left neglected by the Duterte government. At present, 10,000 seafarers are now awaiting repatriation. In Qatar, retrenchments have hit 73 OFWs from Structurel and 200 others from Qatar Airways. 

The $200 or Php 10,000 financial assistance promised by DOLE for OFWs would only be good for 10 days. This will never be enough to sustain them and their dependents if the situation persists for more than a month. President Duterte must provide additional allocations on top of this. We call on the government to provide monthly financial assistance and relief to OFW households until the lockdown gets lifted. Beneficiaries should include all those affected by travel ban and flight cancellations, OFWs affected by work and livelihood suspensions or disruptions, returning OFWs that will be subjected to the 14-day quarantine and all OFWs serving in the frontline. Adequate quarantine facilities must also be provided for the thousands of returning OFWs. 

President Duterte and his militarist henchmen are haunted by the boiling resentment of the Filipino masses against government inutility. The healthcare system is on the verge of collapse as hospitals are increasingly incapacitated by thinning healthcare workers and dwindling supplies. Regime officials are in denial of the shortage while the ruling elite’s demands for immediate VIP testing continue to go unhampered. Treating the COVID-19 pandemic as a peace and order issue will in no way arrest the increasing number contractions. It is a public health emergency issue that should be addressed through a comprehensive blueprint laid out by health experts and not by militarist predators. 

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