According to government data, up to 3,926 OFWs were infected with COVID-19 in the Middle East as of 19 June. The numbers in the Middle East have far exceeded figures in Europe and North America making the Middle East a COVID-19 hotspot for OFWs. Based on DFA figures, from 207 Middle East OFW casualties on 17 June, the number surged to 223 two days later on friday, 19 June. Migrante International banged the alarm on the Duterte government’s criminal negligence that has been aggravating the peril brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic to overseas Filipinos in the Middle East.
In a press conference held on friday, distressed OFWs decried the inefficient and/or absence of support from the Philippine government. Bernadette Erlano who works as a cleaner along with 300 other Filipino women under Jawa Human Resources in Al Khobar said that from March 1 up to now, they have not received their salaries and were only provided with company allowances.
With many of them caught by the lockdown with expired or expiring contracts, they sought help from the embassy’s Philippine Overseas Labor Office (POLO) but no support came in. Refusing to go to work with their expired contracts, they were threatened by the company that their food allowances will be cut off. They pleaded with POLO officials in the hope that they will be able to claim their benefits and be repatriated urgently to the Philippines. Some of them were even brought to the police stations for questioning after posting their plight on social media.
Louie Perez works as an aluminum installer in Riyadh and was among the group of OFWs who went viral on social media after uploading their video when they were scavenging for food from garbage bins. “We followed the process for the government’s AKAP cash assistance program but we were told that we are not qualified. Having a co-worker who died in distress and finding ourselves scavenging for food from garbage bins should be enough reason for the government to consider us qualified and have all of us repatriated,” Perez implored.
Pablito de Ocampo, one of the OFWs who resorted to scavenging said, “We have always relayed our pleas to POLO. We feel like we are being used like playful objects where after being lent here in Saudi, our own government refuses to give us help. POLO is inutile!”
Rogelio Rivalde blamed POLO for the death of their fellow co-worker Jeffrey Yape. Rivalde said that Yape died in distress without receiving any substantial hellp from POLO. “They even pressured us to resign but we refused because we will be forced to pay thousands of Saudi Riyals.” Yape died of cardiac arrest on 21 May.
Migrante International Chairperson Joanna Concepcion blasted the Duterte government’s ineptitude. “The government is hell-bent in imposing state exactions like Philhealth to extract more money from OFWs. However when it comes to providing relief services and financial assistance, OFWs are being deprived by their own government. OFWs are rummaging through trash bins just to find food so where are the promised food and financial assistance? Why is it that they are just allowing OFWs to die from hunger and neglect?”
Marife Torres and Yolanda Lorica have been begging their companies to allow them to return back to the Philippines but their pleas were denied. Torres is fearful that she has already contracted COVID-19 from her employer who recently tested positive. Lorica said that she and her co-workers are being coerced to pay 15,000 Saudi Riyals if they want to be granted exit visas.
Concepcion of Migrante lamented that the Duterte regime still does not have any contingency plan up to this very moment. She said, “we demand for immediate actions to repatriate our kababayans and deliver assistance for the families of OFWs who died from COVID-19. Stranded OFWs should not be made to pay for flights just to be repatriated. They should be provided with free repatriation and medical assistance.”
Slavelike conditions describe the plight of John Michael Solis along with his fellow OFWs in Khatif. They have been forced to work overtime for a scaffolding company without pay and without allowance. Their passports are being withheld from them by their employers.
Meanwhile, James Cabugsa has been on a No-Work-No-Pay arrangement for three months in Dubai, UAE. “I applied for DOLE’s AKAP cash assistance way back on the 24th of April but I have never heard anything from them. I just don’t understand why community groups, organizations and even individuals are able to provide relief to us while in contrast, we are not getting any response at all from our very own government. All we are asking is for the government to urgently come to our aid and respond to our pleas,” Cabugsa entreated.
Tormented over the terrible condition of her daughter Mary Jane Veloso who is still on death row in Indonesia after being victimized by traffickers, Nanay Celia is calling anew on the government to help her eldest daughter Lea who tested positive for COVID-19 in Dammam. “I am asking our president to help my daughters. Mary Jane Veloso is ill. Her blood pressure went down to 80/60 and she also has an ulcer. At the same time, my eldest daughter in Damman is already COVID-19 positive. I feel so much misery over their afflictions and if it were not for Migrante, and other generous supporters like church people, I wouldn’t know what to do. I hope Mary Jane will return soon and my eldest daughter [in Dammam] recover swiftly so that we all can be reunited here. I hope the president is watching, and come to the aid of my daughters.”
Hearing the testimonies of Filipino migrants, Joanna Concepcion of Migrante International said, “This only shows that OFWs are not getting the ‘VIP-treatment’ loudly trumpeted by Malacañang. They are not being prioritized by the Duterte government. In fact, while Philippine embassies and consular services were halted by suspensions, POGO operations in the Philippines are being opened. The cessation of consular services overseas at this time of crisis is proof of the government’s abandonment of OFWs. The welfare of OFWs is the responsibility of the government and its agencies. Migrante International has been documenting the situation of distressed OFWs and we will not hesitate to resort to legal actions if the government continues to neglect them. ”