With vast proportions of business operations forced to shut down, governments in the Middle East such as the UAE and Kuwait are firming up amnesty programs to allow migrants with visa issues to leave their host countries without having to pay fines or getting penalized. Migrante International calls upon the Duterte government to urgently repatriate all stranded Filipino migrants and persuade governments of other host countries to implement similar amnesty programs or grace periods.
The surge in the number of stranded Filipinos in the Middle East reflects the grievous impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and recession to migrant workers. Most of the cases are in Saudi Arabia. No work no pay arrangements have made life unbearable for OFWs whose loved ones back home are likewise battered by the Duterte government’s refusal to provide cash aid for OFW families. Another offense would be the government’s limit on the daily number of repatriations. Media reports say that only 600 repatriates are allowed to return each day. This is just one example of the Duterte regime’s appalling treatment of its ‘modern-day heroes’ right in the midst of a global health emergency. With Duterte’s persistent delayed response, he is proving to be outrightly blind to the gravity and urgency of the situations faced by OFWs.
For decades, one Philippine regime after another has relied on labour export to camouflage the uninterrupted crisis generated by neoliberal economic policies. Before the eruption of the COVID-19 recession, the Philippines for the longest time has been the country with the highest unemployment rate in Southeast Asia. DOLE admits that 5 to 10 million workers in the homefront are in grave peril of losing their jobs as the crisis rears its head for the worst.
We can really dare say that Duterte’s ‘Balik Probinsya’ program is meant to preempt the boiling resentment of displaced precariats in NCR, majority of them are from the service sector which accounts for 24 million jobs or more than half of the employed workforce. Agriculture which is supposed to be an essential sector to ensure the country’s food security has long been in the throes of death due to unhampered liberalization. Expect that as soon as the turbulence eases, ‘Balik Abroad’ will be their primary resort.
Scrambling to look for sources of funds to replenish a near-emptied coffer rifled by corruption, the Duterte regime rammed the mandatory Philhealth coverage and premium rate hike into the throats of hapless Filipino migrants. OFWs are no longer buying bogus assurances of benefits from Philhealth after the agency has been mired with issues of ghost patients and deliveries. As Duterte’s suspension on the mandatory Philhealth and rate hike ends on 30th of May, OFWs will find themselves crushed to the point of fatality just to resuscitate the profit of a healthcare sector dominated by big private business and that of the Duterte government which is entrenched in corruption and bureaucrat capitalism. Meanwhile, Duterte’s economic mismanagement team is pushing for a cut on corporate income tax rates from 30% to 25% in July this year. Undoubtedly, this is highly favourable to oppressive oligarchs.
Filipino migrants and their advocates are fighting hard to stop the Duterte regime from milking OFWs anew for their hard-earned money. Aside from the weekly Global Kalampagan conducted by Migrante members worldwide, overseas Filipinos are also exerting all-out support for House Bill 6698 filed by Makabayan bloc members at the House of Representatives. This seeks to amend the Universal Health Care Act (UHC) to render the membership of overseas Filipinos to Philhealth voluntary, and remove its provisions for premium increase and the imposition of penalty.
What we need to see now are immediate repatriation for stranded OFWs, transportation assistance, steady financial aid and the provision of health services upon their return. OFWs in quarantine are neither getting any psychosocial support nor regular health checks. Without amelioration, their confinement in government quarantine facilities would only amount to them being subjected to mass incarceration. The Duterte government must prioritize the safe return of our kababayans. Forcing them to pay hefty fees for supposed healthcare services which they don’t get in quarantine facilities is tantamount to sequestering them to extract ransom.