OFW group calls for speedy repatriation of OFWs. Demands complete junking of mandatory Philhealth and premium rate hike

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. 

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PHOTO: DFA-OUMWA

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. 

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“Arrest Sinas! Stop criminalizing distressed OFWs fleeing detention-like quarantine facilities! Scrap mandatory Philhealth and premium rate hike” — Migrante International

In an inter-agency task force meeting aired online on Tuesday night, COVID-19 Chief Implementer Secretary Carlito Galvez said that a total of 465 returning OFWs have tested positive for the disease. One solon last month said that 420,000 OFWs are set to return in the next six months as a result of the COVID-19 world health crisis and economic recession. 27,000 are already in Metro Manila and 42,000 are expected to arrive in the next several weeks. 

More than two months into one of the world’s longest and harshest lockdowns, the Duterte regime is still without a comprehensive plan encompassing medical intervention and financial assistance for OFWs.  So just like those who have arrived before them, returning OFWs are expected to undergo the same sorts of ordeal that are afflicting those languishing in temporary quarantine facilities. According to reports, Galvez expressed that there might no longer be enough quarantine rooms to accommodate the additional 42,000 repatriates.

Since the massive influx of OFWs back to the country has already been anticipated early on, there is clear criminal neglect on the part of the Duterte regime. It’s hard to forget the tragic fate that befell one OFW from Kuwait who committed suicide inside a temporary quarantine facility in Pasay City. Fellow occupants of the said quarantine said that they have been stuck there for more than two weeks without getting any medical check-ups nor any financial aid from the government. Prior to their return, many of these OFWs endured abuses from their employers overseas. 

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PHOTO: abs-cbn.com/news

Despairing over the loss of their livelihood while struggling to cope up with emotional traumas are terrible afflictions for OFWs. Migrante International’s call on the Duterte government to provide psychosocial support for OFWs under quarantine has fallen on deaf ears. We therefore find Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin’s arrest order against OFWs who fled quarantine facilities as atrocious. It is such a shame that OFWs traumatized by their experiences abroad and in local quarantine facilities are now being treated like criminals by their own government. The regime’s double standard is glaring considering that President Duterte even praised NCR Police Chief Maj. General Debold Sinas as an “honest” and “good officer” despite fierce criticisms from the public for his ECQ violations. Thanks to Duterte’s hypocrisy, Sinas is now acting like a spoiled princess.  

Adding to the troubles faced by OFWs is the impending mandatory Philhealth collection and premium rate hike that will ensue following the expiration of the moratorium on premium payments after the 30th of May. The Duterte regime’s much-vaunted Universal Healthcare Law is just another scam to bleed OFW pockets dry. OFWs in quarantine facilities can attest that they are not getting the healthcare services they deserve. Migrante International supports the demand of OFWs for the complete junking of the mandatory Philhealth membership and premium rate hike. OFWs fed up by the Duterte regime’s inutility are not criminals. Without the financial aid, psychosocial support, medical and transportation services that OFWs deserve to get, the Duterte regime’s temporary quarantine shelter are nothing but detention facilities. 

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OFWs pushes for the passage of HB 6698 and held more protests against mandatory Philhealth and premium increase

Filipino migrant workers are refusing to be complacent after Duterte’s pronouncements that OFWs should be voluntary members to Philhealth and are instead raising the momentum of the global campaign to put an end to the unjust, extortionate and burdensome mandatory PhilHealth and premium rate hike among overseas Filipinos and migrant workers.

Led by Migrante International member organizations, they staged global noise barrage protests this weekend on the streets, their workplaces, and their homes to register their roaring opposition and discontentment with the mere suspension of the Philhealth mandatory premium collection.

From Germany, Korea, Rome, New Zealand, to Hong Kong, Filipino migrants hold banner signs “Scrap, not Suspension” and “Dapat Forever, Hindi Pay Later” while expressing their strong and united support for the urgent passage of House Bill 6698 filed by the Makabayan Bloc on May 7, 2020 which would amend the Universal Health Care Act (UHC) and render the membership of overseas Filipinos to Philhealth voluntary, and remove its provision for premium increase and imposition of penalty.

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Understanding the necessity of amending the UHC law, member organizations and allied supporters of Migrante International will begin sending letters this week to the Congressmembers of the House Committee on Health to put forward their position and demand for the immediate approval of House Bill 6698.

In an online show by ABS CBN Global Kabayani Talks held on May 16, Dr. Shirley Domingo from PhilHealth made it clear that Philhealth will resume its collection of fees by the month of June per its mandate given in the Universal Health Care Act signed and approved by President Duterte. Therefore, the Duterte regime should expect deafening protest actions among Filipino migrant workers worldwide to only intensify.

Filipino migrants are firmly resolved to continue its global kalampagan protests until Duterte moves to act on his declaration by swiftly calling on Congress to amend the Universal Health Care Act.

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“Scrap forever, hindi pay later!” Overseas Filipinos slam Duterte’s mandatory Philhealth as ‘legalized robbery.’

Angered by President Duterte’s mere suspension of the mandatory Philhealth membership and premium rate hike, Filipino migrants from all over the world staged an online global protest on Tuesday, 12 May, to demand the elimination of what they call “unjust” and “extortionate” state exactions. Migrante International members from North America, Europe, the Middle East and Asia Pacific likewise related the plight of OFWs and Filipino migrants hard hit by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and recession. 

Migrante International Chairperson Joanna Concepcion slammed the Duterte administration’s “new scheme of legalized extortion” imposed on migrant workers. “We will not allow migrants to be robbed anew of their hard-earned salaries just to fund large-scale corruption in Philhealth. We will not forget the fake [ghost] patients, fake receipts, and the billions of funds lost to corruption,” Concepcion stated. She further argued that the pandemic has exposed the failure of neoliberal policies in addressing the enormous problems faced by the country’s healthcare system. 

Marlon Gatdula of Migrante KSA reminded the Duterte administration that Filipino workers in Saudi Arabia already have existing health insurance provided to them by employers. Gatdula pointed out that when it comes to providing relief, Philippine government officials are not exerting concrete actions to aid OFWs who are under No-Work, No-Pay arrangements. 

Europe being one of the most severely affected continents by the pandemic, Marlon Lacsamana of Migrante Europe raised its objection to the Duterte administration’s intent to overburden OFWs. “If the government is able to fund militarization in communities and in the countryside, that money should be taken back and be used for public health services for the people. The government is spending billions on debt servicing for owed money which has not contributed anything for the people’s welfare. That money should likewise be retrieved and be allocated to provide free services for Filipinos.” Lacsamana added that they are not just calling for the total scrapping of the mandatory Philhealth but for Duterte’s ouster.

Amidst the pandemic, many migrants are not only being afflicted by the Duterte government’s extortionist policies. Nap Pempeña of Migrante USA decried government negligence towards J1 visa holders victimized by recruitment agencies. He said that these young interns were promised professional training but actually ended up as replacements for the domestic workforce. Due to the closure of hotel and resort operations, thousands of young interns were laid off and are now without any income to support their basic needs. This is on top of the huge amounts of debt they incurred from the exorbitant fees charged by recruitment agencies. Pempeña deplored DFA’s failure to utilize the Php 1 Billion Assistance to Nationals fund to aid distressed J1 visa holders.

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Speaking on behalf of seafarers, Atty. Edwin de la Cruz of the International Seafarers’ Action Center (ISAC) revealed that there are 150 thousand stranded seafarers whose manned ships are unable to dock in international ports choked by unclaimed cargoes. There are also 21 thousand stranded seafarers in Manila who are unable to return back to their respective provinces due to lockdown restrictions. “Access to health services is part of our basic rights but this is contradicted by the continuing privatization of healthcare in accordance with neoliberal policies. It is private hospitals that will really benefit the most from Philhealth funds and not public hospitals. Furthermore, seafarers are already being extorted to pay for mandatory SSS, OWWA, Philhealth and other exactions charged on them by the government and private manning agencies.” Atty. Edwin de la Cruz likewise reiterated that seafarers are already covered by healthcare programs and free hospitalizations offered to them by their employers, agencies and trade unions. 

From the land down under, Mel Baltazar of Migrante Australia sounded the alarm against the forcible collection of Philhealth dues. “We were not even consulted and given information on what we Filipinos in Australia will get as benefits from the mandatory Philhealth. We are already covered by existing medical insurance programs in Australia. We do not need another one so the mandatory Philhealth membership will be useless.” 

Under Duterte’s mandatory Philhealth, Baltazar cited that for newly arrived Filipinos earning 4,500 Australian dollars a month, they will end up getting charged by at least 1,620 Australian dollars a year which is equivalent to 56,700 pesos. “There are more than 300 thousand Filipinos in Australia so collecting Philhealth dues from 60,000 Filipinos alone would already allow the Duterte government to rake in 3 Trillion pesos worth of collections but how are we going to benefit from it? Scrap mandatory Philhealth! Scrap forever, hindi pay later,” Baltazar exclaimed.   

Garnering 12 thousand online views, Migrante International extolled migrants, OFWs and Filipino community leaders who participated in the global online protest. Overseas Filipinos vowed to launch more actions to oppose the Duterte administration’s extortionist policies. 

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“Scrap not suspension!” — OFWs on their Kalampagan protest against Duterte’s mandatory Philhealth and premium hike

Disappointed by Duterte’s mere suspension order on the mandatory Philhealth coverage and premium hike, OFWs demanded the scrapping of relevant provisions in Duterte’s Universal Healthcare Law. Following social distancing measures, Filipino migrants continued their weekly ‘Kalampagan’ protest to oppose what they call “unjust” and “extortionate” exactions imposed by the Duterte government. 

Dolores Balladares Pelaez of Migrante Hong Kong said, “we oppose this because no consultation was conducted among migrant workers. This is a burden for migrant workers and we really find this unnecessary since migrant workers are already covered by existing insurance programs in their respective countries.” Hong Kong based-Filipino migrant organizations have been banding together under RAGE Hong Kong or Rise Against Government Exactions, a broad alliance formed to express dissent against various state fees and collections. 

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“As long as the law is not amended, our Philhealth membership is far from becoming permanently voluntary,” Pelaez added. Meanwhile, Chat Dimaano of Migrante Korea urged Filipinos to support the amendatory House Bill No. 6698 filed by the Makabayan bloc on Tuesday last week, 7 May.

Mikee Santos of Migrante Aotearoa (New Zealand) stated, “the law and its guidelines should be amended to ensure that we’ll not end up with a mere suspension. We demand that the mandatory Philhealth for OFWs, legal residents and dual citizens be junked now.”

In addition to the global Kalampagan protest held every weekend, members of Migrante Philippines have been conducting relief missions under Cure COVID’s Damayang Migrante to reach out to stranded OFW domestic helpers and seafarers in dormitories and shelters in Metro Manila. Hundreds of stranded OFWs joined the StrandedPH community to call for mass testing, financial and transportation assistance for all OFWs experiencing the same plight. 

Migrante International Chairperson Joanna Concepcion said that an online global protest will be conducted by Filipino migrant organizations around the world to register their call for the immediate scrapping of the mandatory Philhealth and premium hike. “If OFWs did not raise their collective voice, the Duterte regime could have already succeeded in extorting OFWs through the mandatory Philhealth and premium hike. Filipino migrants are tired of being treated as milking cows by the Philippine government. We will continue to protest the unjust provisions of the law until it is totally scrapped. ” Concepcion concluded. The online global protest will be aired live from 1 PM to 2:30 PM (PH Standard Time) through Migrante International’s official Facebook page on Tuesday, 12 May 2020. 

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Makabayan’s amendatory bill on mandatory Philhealth gets strong backing from OFW advocacy group Migrante Int’l

Following the filing of House Resolution No. 00827 by Makabayan bloc legislators on Tuesday, 5 May 2020, directing the House Committee on Health to conduct an urgent review of President Duterte’s Republic Act 11223 or the Universal Healthcare Act, an amendatory bill was filed today pushing for voluntary Philhealth membership of overseas Filipinos. Bayan Muna Representatives Ferdinand Gaite, Carlos Isagani Zarate, Eufemia Cullamat, ACT Teachers Party-List Rep. France Castro, Gabriela Women’s Party Rep. Arlene Brosas and Kabataan Party-List Rep. Sarah Elago led the introduction of House Bill No. 6698 to the Congressional session today, 7 May 2020.

Welcoming the house resolutions initiated by the Makabayan bloc, Migrante International Chairperson Joanna Concepcion is hopeful that it will pave the way to finally put a stop on the imposition of the premium rate hike. “We are very grateful to the Makabayan bloc in Congress for raising the collective sentiments of Filipino migrants against the mandatory Philhealth exaction. This was signed and approved by President Duterte himself and even without the scourge of the COVID-19 crisis, OFWs will surely oppose this unjust and extortionate law.” 

President Duterte recently ordered suspension of Philhealth’s premium rate hike following international outrage from Filipino communities abroad. The resolution cited initiatives from Filipino migrants opposing its implementation. Among them is the online petition which has already garnered more than 410,000 signatories. A joint position statement was also launched by Migrante International signed by about 200 Filipino migrant organizations from different countries around the world. 

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PHOTO: First Makabayan Bloc Zoom Presscon (7 May 2020) regarding the ABS-CBN Franchise, PhilHealth and the Universal Healthcare Law, and human rights violations and other concerns during the Enhanced Community Quarantine (Screengrabbed from Gabriela Women’s Party)

One of the arguments raised by House Resolution No. 00827 states, “PhilHealth should not be allowed to impose a premium rate hike, considering that it has P97 billion reserve funds and net income of P11.6 billion in 2018, not to mention its investment portfolio at P149 billion.” 

Meanwhile, the amendatory House Bill No. 6698 pointed out: “Suspending the PhilHealth premium increase only temporarily relieves the overseas Filipinos of the additional burden. There is a need to truly unburden the overseas Filipinos by allowing voluntary membership, removing the “double” payment, compounded interest for unpaid premium, and unjust premium increases by amending certain provisions of the Universal Health Care Law.”

Discontented by President Duterte’s mere suspension of the mandatory Philhealth collection and premium rate hike, Filipino migrant groups led by Migrante International are set to conduct an online protest on Tuesday, 12 May 2020 to express opposition against what they call “unjust and extortionate” provisions of Duterte’s Universal Healthcare Law. 

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“ABS-CBN shutdown order, a violation against the right of the Filipino people to access information. Bolsters Duterte’s Martial Rule” — Migrante International

NTC’s cease and desist order against ABS-CBN is not only an attack on press freedom but an act of hostility against its 11,000 employees. Just as President Duterte’s underlings attempted to harass and deport a Taiwan-based OFW for merely voicing out her legitimate criticisms, the regime is now launching a much larger scale of assault against free speech and the people’s right to information. It wants fuller control over the flow of information to pervert the everyday accounts of the Filipino public.

Migrante International stands in solidarity with the thousands of ABS-CBN employees whose families will now have to face grimmer days ahead due to the loss of their livelihood and employment. Duterte’s wranglings against ABS-CBN attest to his personal vendetta against the company. How can this regime even do such monstrosity to the thousands of families right at this terrible period of crisis? The country is now lying flat on its back but the Duterte regime would rather see to it that thousands upon thousands are added to the vast number of Filipinos gripped by hunger and deprivation. 

We find it woeful for this to occur just days after International Workers’ Day and World Press Freedom Day. While we were still left baffled by ABS-CBN’s closure, we were struck anew by the horrible news of a media worker shot dead in Dumaguete City. Migrante International is one with the media community in demanding justice for Rex Cornelio of 93.7 FM Dumaguete. 

In many provinces outside of Metro Manila, ABS-CBN is the only TV station available on air. Tens of millions are now without access to important news and information at a time when COVID-19 is ravaging the country. In places where communication signals are too weak, watching ABS-CBN’s TV programs could be the only way for them to keep track of the general situation in places, whether it be in the Philippines or abroad, where their loved ones live. 

President Duterte is just too spooked by the mass awakening and growing outrage of the Filipino people against the injustices being committed by his regime. For OFWs and their families, the ABS-CBN shutdown is Duterte’s way of clamping down on media entities exposing his extortionate agenda against OFWs as in the mandatory Philhealth exaction and premium rate hike. The closure of the Philippines’ largest network comes at a time when the Duterte regime is repelling enormous criticisms due to the Philhealth controversy. 

Just as how crony capitalism got ahead during the Marcos years, POGO operations and Dennis Uy’s expansion into entertainment and media business are expected to reach their apex at the back of a hard-pressed media community.  Even without an official declaration, it is pretty evident that Martial Law is currently underway, and Duterte is using the same Marcosian tactics to suppress civil liberties in favour of his despotic rule. Migrante International calls on all Filipinos to fight for their right to information and defend the media community from Duterte’s Fascist attacks. 

#NoToABSCBNShutdown

#DefendPressFreedom

#MediaFightBack

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