ASEAN Beat | Society | Southeast Asia

The Hurting Heroes: The COVID-19 Crisis and Overseas Filipino Workers

Filipinos around the world are contending with the impact of COVID-19.

By Mary Manlangit for
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The Hurting Heroes: The COVID-19 Crisis and Overseas Filipino Workers

In this Tuesday, March, 2020, photo, volunteers and government workers for a line as they wait to be checked before entering a local city hall as the government enforces the enhanced community quarantine to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus in Metro Manila, Philippines.

Credit: AP Photo/Aaron Favila

With exemptions on flights carrying medical supplies and other essential airlift operations, the Philippine government imposed a moratorium on flights for a week that started May 3. In a letter from the COVID-19 National Task Force Chief addressed to the Transport Secretary, the decision was “in view of the need to ramp up the capacity of [the country’s] systems to properly process the growing number of Filipino repatriates coming back to the Philippines.” As of May 6, the total number of Filipinos repatriated by the Southeast Asian government had reached 23,000, many of whom were Overseas Filipino Workers (OFW) who had lost their jobs due to the pandemic.

The Philippines has one of the largest diasporas in the world. There is an estimated 10 million Filipinos abroad, roughly a tenth of the country’s population, working for the promise of higher wages and better opportunities for themselves and for their families back home. In 2019, remittances from OFWs reached a record high of $33.9 billion, equivalent to about 10 percent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP). With the ongoing global health crisis, how can a country in which 12 percent of households are OFW-dependent, be able to cushion the imminent economic threat?

The OFWs as They Grapple with the Pandemic

On May 6, the COVID-19 National Task Force informed the Filipino public that another 45,000 OFWs are expected to return home by the end of June, bringing the list of repatriates close to 70,000. Said figures are even conservative as the medium- and long-term effects have not been taken into account, as admitted by the national chief of the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA). In a policy brief authored by a top Philippine university, about 300,000 to 400,000 OFWs are estimated to be affected by the pandemic, from pay cuts to layoffs to eventual repatriation.

Among the OFWs who have been repatriated was Dwayne Infante, who worked as a customer service executive for a bus sightseeing company in Singapore. Before the pandemic started crawling into every economic sector, it had crippled first the tourism industry and Dwayne’s almost three years working for the company did not a stand a chance in deferring his employer’s layoff decision.

For OFWs who were able to stay abroad, the seeming luck of keeping their livelihood does not guarantee immunity from the dangers that COVID-19 poses. As of writing, there are 1,819 Filipinos who have contracted the coronavirus, 214 of whom have succumbed, including the country’s ambassador to Lebanon.

While a third of OFWs are employed in low-level positions (37 percent) per the latest national survey, a significant number of Filipino workers are also deployed to professional sectors such as the healthcare industry. The Philippines is well-known as a source country for medical professionals, particularly registered nurses, a trend that had been on the rise since the early 2000s. Many local universities and colleges offer nursing programs geared toward meeting global demand.

In times like this, Filipino nurses are on the frontline to take care of patients of their host countries and are thus at risk of acquiring the coronavirus. Rish (who wished not to disclose her full name) is one of them. A first-time OFW, she is currently a nurse in a private hospital in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. As she was fully aware of the symptoms of the coronavirus, she hurriedly insisted on having herself tested. In the second week of April, she was confirmed for COVID-19 and was admitted to the same hospital she works for. Rish is in her mid-20s and is generally healthy, which allowed her to recover within a month. Thankfully, all expenses were covered by the state and her employer continued to pay her salary, despite a month’s worth of sick leave.

A better quality of life overseas, particularly in developed countries, has been the pulling factor why OFWs pack their bags. In fact, it is becoming pervasive among the Filipino youth. According to the 2019 report of the World Economic Forum (WEF), about 53 percent of the country’s young people, aged 15 to 35 years old, wanted to work overseas.

A few years after college graduation, Jirehl Carlos decided to pursue a postgraduate degree in Canada following the footsteps of her relatives who had been in the country for more than 10 years. Her studies was supported by a combination of merit scholarships and wage earnings from working for a fast food chain. After obtaining a Canadian diploma and landing a communications role in a local school, Jirehl is now planning to emigrate permanently in the country. However, the processes for acquiring a permanent residency have been halted by the movement restrictions both the Philippine and the Canadian governments had imposed at varying levels to contain the pandemic. While her host country continues to accept immigration applications, the undeniable delays that COVID-19 caused present a bleak outlook.

In the Philippines, the acronym OFW is synonymous to “bagong bayani” (modern-day heroes) particularly attributed to their contribution to the country’s economy despite personal sacrifices. They were first lauded as such in the 1988 address of former President Corazon Aquino before the Filipino workers in Hong Kong. The term remains relevant today, but with the global health crisis, the impacts of which are out of the hands of these Filipino modern-day heroes, the Philippine government has to step up, in various necessary ways, to embrace its returning OFWs and to relieve some pressure for those who are able to stay abroad.

The Philippines in Bearing the Weight of OFWs’ Plight

The Philippine economy saw a decline of 0.2 percent in the first quarter, its steepest in more than 20 years. As for its full-year GDP contraction, the country’s economic team projects that the Philippines will suffer a 2 to 3.4 percent contraction; although the Socioeconomic Planning Secretary is hopeful that the country will recuperate in the second half of 2020 and follow a V-shaped recovery.

Nonetheless, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the country is doubtlessly missing its remittance cushion. The Central Bank expects remittances to contract by 2 to 3 percent this year, a conservative estimate in comparison to the massive $10 billion drop (around 35 percent of the 2019 statistic) earlier forecasted by an ex-cabinet official

While the 2008 financial crisis may have faltered remittance inflows from most affected countries into the Philippines, the economic risk that COVID-19 is generating is more complicated as the pandemic is penetrating in all corners of the world. More so, falling oil prices in the Middle East, the top destination of Filipino workers, has exacerbated the ordeal.

In the middle of the Philippine government’s implementation of modified lockdowns throughout the country, lies the looming impact of COVID-19 on its labor migration. Policymakers need not only to innovate with the economic loss from disturbed cash inflows but also to instigate a best-of-situation strategy to reintegrate repatriated workers in their home country despite the increasing levels of unemployment and other socio-economic factors.

In April, the Philippine government imposed a mandatory COVID-19 testing and a 14-day facility-based quarantine for all returning Filipinos. The testing and all-related expenses of OFWs, both land-based and sea-based migrant workers, are to be covered by the government. Non-OFWs, however, are to shoulder their accommodation costs. At present, OWWA is overseeing 110 quarantine facilities in Metro Manila and nearby provinces while appealing for Filipino workers’ understanding over quarantine rules as some have aired on social media their disappointment on the lack of inter-agency organization.

Similar to many governments in the world, the Philippine government has so far unveiled a stimulus package worth 200 billion Philippine pesos ($3.93 billion) to fund the administration’s measures in containing the pandemic and to shore up the economy. Among the parked budget requirements was an emergency relief for displaced workers due to COVID-19. The government has allotted over $29.6 million OFW cash aid targeting 150, 000 affected Filipinos. The emergency assistance program grants a one-time $200 to an approved OFW applicant. While the Labor Department has already disbursed assistance to some 86,000 OFWs, it is still requesting for a higher allocation from the national government after receiving over 230,000 applications.

Beyond these measures, the administration has been urged by the academe and labor experts to secure welfare protection programs for OFWs. Inter-governmental dialogs should be initiated to negotiate retainment of Filipino workers in their jobs and if possible, their inclusion in social amelioration programs. The Philippines may also tap multilateral labor organizations in assisting the distressed workers. Moving forward, the government should ensure expansive employment and social protection coverage for Filipino workers so as to safeguard them from any crisis the world might have again witness.

The Philippines has already harbored the reputation of being a resilient nation. Prior to the escalation of the COVID-19 pandemic in domestic and global scenes, the country was already confounded by the erratic eruptions of an active volcano and now as the typhoon season is launching, its citizens can only choose to be strong. Above the systemic government fractures rise the Filipino people who continue to depict such resilience in both home and abroad. 

Mary Manlangit is an international relations professional, and an overseas Filipino worker (OFW), based in Singapore. She is a postgraduate alumna of S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University.