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:

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.