In a press conference held at the Migrante International home office on Monday, 17 February, OFWs affected by the travel ban expressed their demand to the Duterte government to lift the COVID-19 travel ban and grant exemption to returning migrant workers, students and residents.
Eleveneth Baldero, a domestic helper from Hong Kong relayed her fear of losing her job due to the travel ban. “We are affected by the travel ban because contractual workers like us are fearful of getting terminated if we are unable to return back to our employers on time. My contract is set to expire on 6 March that is why I’m really worried. Financially, I am running out of money to sustain my stay here in the Philippines. This is why I really need to return back to Hong Kong,” Baldero said.
Rowena Lee was unable to hold back her tears thinking about her ailing mother in Hong Kong who was just discharged recently from the hospital. “This is a very big problem for us since my 75-year old mother in Hong Kong still needs medical attention and I really want to return so I can be with her. She is all by herself. I was only allowed by our manager to spend my leave up to 28 February. We hope that the government will lift the ban because we have needs to address and bills to pay like rent. Our family needs us. It will be very hard for us if we get forced by the situation to borrow money just to extend our stay here. I am pleading to the government to lift the travel ban so we can return to our normal lives. We are struggling because we are not earning anything here.”
Working as a company employee, Tess Aquino is a permanent resident and has been in Hong Kong for 23 years. Aquino arrived here on 15 January for her annual leave and was set to fly back on 9 February. She heard about the travel ban on 2 February and received an email notice from Philippine Airlines informing her about her flight’s cancellation. “I have attempted all possible ways to return back to Hong Kong. I was told by my company to try travelling to Hong Kong via Vietnam. Travel agencies refused to book my flight because of the travel ban and I was told that I will only be wasting my money because even if I make it to Vietnam, they would still not allow us to get to our final destination which is Hong Kong. For now, my company allowed me to temporarily work as home-based but for how long? I don’t think our employers will wait for us forever if this continues.”
Tess Aquino also re-echoed UNIFIL-Migrante Hong Kong’s view on the “terrible state of public health” in the Philippines. “If there are only adequate employment opportunities here in the Philippines, there could have been no need for us to leave the country. The government is now telling us that we cannot return back to our work. This is almost akin to taking away our lives. If we get sick here in the Philippines, local salaries here won’t be enough to shoulder medical expenses. We really need to have the Duterte government grant exemption to returning OFWs, students and residents.”
Former (FMWU-Hong Kong) Filipino Migrant Workers’ Union Chairperson Feliza Guy Benitez said that leave granted to OFWs usually lasts for 14-days . “If OFWs get terminated because they exceeded the 14-day leave, it will be hard for us to get back again to zero just to process all the application papers and the government won’t even pay for it.” Benitez also read the Urgent Appeal Joint Statement signed by 131 Hong Kong-based Filipino organizations. The statement called on the Duterte government to lift the ban imposed on 2 February to Filipinos travelling to Hong Kong.
The statement cited reported estimates saying that there are around 25,000 overseas Filipino workers who have been unable to leave the country because of the ban. “We all feel that the travel ban which was imposed without a warning or consultation is unjustified and oppressive. It was decided upon without a comprehensive understanding of how it would affect us, and was not even in line with health protocols set by the World Health Organization. The abruptness by which it was carried out also belied the concern for Filipinos abroad that President Rodrigo Duterte has expressed in numerous speeches and interviews.”
Aside from the 25,000 stranded OFWs, an additional 1,000 are affected by the travel ban consisting of Filipino residents, students and small business proprietors. “Health-wise, we also feel safer in Hong Kong where we are assured of excellent public health care at little or no cost to us. Some of us who have private medical insurance get the added bonus of being treated at private hospitals, also for free,” the joint urgent appeal statement said.
OFWs also blasted the miniscule amount of compensation offered by OWWA to qualified OFWs. “Each stranded OFW was offered Php10,000 compensation from the OWWA Fund, an amount that would not even pay for the expenses they had to bear after being stranded at the airport. Moreover, non-OFWs were given no help at all, when many of them don’t even have houses in the Philippines, and have to pay for food and lodging while waiting for the ban to be lifted. They are also in danger of suffering even more if they lose their jobs, as they pay high rents and other expenses such as school fees for their children in Hong Kong,” the joint urgent appeal stated.
“When I went to OWWA, I was told that I am not covered because they are only processing compensation up to 16 February. I really do not know whether I will still receive any compensation from the government,” Eleveneth Baltero added.
Feliza Guy Benitez decried the state of public health services in the Philippines. “People who need medical attention are safer in Hong Kong because of their advanced healthcare system. It will be harder for OFWs to settle back here in the Philippines because of high unemployment, low wages and contractualization.”
When asked about the proposal which seeks to require OFWs to sign a waiver freeing the government from any responsibility should they decide to proceed with their travel to Hong Kong, the stranded OFWs objected. Tess Aquino said that the waiver is “problematic because it is going to free the government from its responsibility towards us OFWs.” Migrante Philippines Rights and Welfare coordinator Lao Castillo said, “The waiver requirement is tantamount to obliging OFWs to surrender their right to receive government assistance. It is a dangerous precedent especially in times of conflict or crisis situations.”
Stranded OFWs at the presscon concurred with the joint urgent appeal statement issued by 131 Hong Kong-based organizations. “For all these reasons, we urge President Duterte to listen to our plea. Exempt Hong Kong from the travel ban. Allow us to go back to Hong Kong,” the urgent appeal stated.
Meanwhile, Victoria Lavado, the daughter of the Filipino seafarer of the cruise ship Diamond Princess is troubled by the situation of her father along with around 500 other Filipino seafarers who were placed under quarantine in Japan after 10 foreign ship crews which include 1 Filipino contracted COVID-19. “It took a long time before they received safety masks and they are still forced to work as if it is business as usual. There is no separate quarantine area for those who are already infected and they can still mix with other crews despite the risks. This is why I was really worried when I found out from reports that there are already 30 to 60 crews who are getting infected with COVID-19 daily. We really want the Duterte government to work on medical repatriation for my father and for the other Filipino seafarers. The government must find a way to provide quality medical services for them here in the Philippines which is unfortunately notorious for its poor public healthcare and medical facilities.”