Roughly nine weeks into the Covid-19 pandemic in Southeast Asia, we have already seen the debilitating effects of Covid-19 on our livelihood and enjoyment of rights and freedoms. This crisis compelled governments, civil society organisations, and concerned individuals to alleviate the plight of exhausted health systems and of vulnerable citizens. However, we have also received information about new waves of infections involving migrants in immigration detention centers and dormitories, many of whom could not access public health services and safety nets carried out by their home and host countries (Satrusayang, 25 April, 2020). Such realities also place Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) in a rather unsettling, greatly insecure condition.
The Current State of Host Countries
Cambodia and Vietnam have been accommodating Filipinos within their respective labour forces. As of 2019, an estimated 6,773 Filipinos are working in entertainment, businesses, development and education sectors in Camboida. Around 80% are based in Phnom Penh, the capital city (Business Mirror, 16 September 2019). In Vietnam, the Philippine Embassy reported that in 2013, around 5,000 Filipinos are found working as educators, and in the tourism and hospitality industries (Bohane, Novio, 23 April 2020a). These statistics obviously exclude undocumented OFWs.
Both countries, as of date, have reported relatively lower numbers of cases compared to their neighbors in Southeast Asia. As of 25 April 2020, Cambodia reported 122 cases, while Vietnam stands at 270. None have reported any deaths from Covid-19. Such low numbers may be attributed to policies their respective governments are undertaking to mitigate the spread of the virus. On March 15, Vietnam shut its borders with Cambodia (Bangkok Post, 19 March 2020). The following day, Cambodia followed suit. Both countries also pursued an indefinite closure of non-essential business establishments, schools, and most public places. This resulted in the immediate unemployment and displacement of thousands of local and foreign workers, particularly foreign nationals.
Most OFWs have already succumbed to the ‘no work, no pay policy’ of both countries. In Vietnam, many Filipinos have already been out of work as early as February, when cases started increasing. Distressed Filipino workers could no longer afford to pay rents and buy food for the next month. Also, majority of Filipinos do not have access to health care in case they are infected with the virus. Although Vietnam has better health care services compared to Cambodia, migrant workers may not avail treatment if they are uninsured or irregularly working in the country. The high cost of hospitalization could drain their limited savings.
Home Country Response
The Migrant Workers and Overseas Filipinos Act of 1995 (RA 8042) stipulates that workers are to be deployed to countries recognizing the rights of the migrant workers as well as in countries with existing bilateral agreements. It also mandates the POEA to protect the rights of the migrant workers. As a labour-sending country, the Philippines requires its nationals to register at the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) and to pay membership to Overseas Worker Welfare Administration (OWWA) (POEA, 1982, 2002).
There are strategic partnerships, agreements and action plan between Vietnam and Philippines since the end of the Cold War but these only cover trade and defense (Vietnam News, 19 November 2015; DFA, 12 April 2016). Between Cambodia and the Philippines, major agreements since 1995 cover trade relations, tourism and health development cooperation and an MOU Concerning the Cooperation in the Field of Labour signed in 2016 (Philippine Embassy, Phonm Pehn).
Due to the absence of bilateral labor agreements or Memorandum of Understanding on the protection of the rights of OFWs in these countries, risks are much higher when the conditions go downhill. Furthermore, there are no designated labour attaches or POLO (Philippine Overseas Labor Office) to settle work-related disputes that may arise between the OFWs and their employers. POLO is the operating arm of the Department of Labor and Employment’s (DOLE) (DubaiPOLO.org)
The Philippine Embassy in Cambodia initiated an information campaign about Covid-19, even before it was declared a pandemic. In an interview with Myca Magnolia M. Fischer, Chargé d’Affaires, the Philippine Embassy in Phnom Penh had issued advisories to Filipinos related to the situation in Cambodia. They also provided information from from WHO, Department of Health (DOH), and Cambodia’s Ministry of Health (Novio, 10 April 2020). In Vietnam, the Philippine Embassy established pick-up centers for the relief packages to be delivered to the registered OFWs. Repatriation was also provided (Bohane, Novio, 23 April 2020b)
On 11 April 2020, the Philippine government launched the DOLE-Akap Cash Assistance for the OFW affected by COVID-19. The one-time cash aid of $200 or roughly PHP 10,000 will be given to OFWs who qualify for the met requirements set by the agency set. However, OFWs working countries in the Mekong Region are not being prioritized. This is despite the provision in the program that includes even the OFWs who are not registered with the POEA or whose contracts were not processed by POEA or POLO. (DOLE, 2020). Moreover, since they are considered as OFWs or working abroad, their families in the Philippines are excluded from the Social Amelioration Program (SAP) of the Philippine Government (Panti, 6 April 2020). These violate the RA 8042 which mandates all agencies to “institute the policies of overseas employment and establish a higher standard of protection and promotion of the welfare of migrant workers, their families and overseas Filipinos in distress.”
No Other Choice but to Return
Distressed Filipinos, who once dreamt of greener pastures abroad, are left with no choice but to return home, where any work prospects are bleak, and the Covid-19 situation is much worse. About 310 Filipino migrants from Vietnam (143) and Cambodia (167) arrived in Manila on 18 April. As of this writing, repatriated OFWs are undergoing a state-sanctioned 14-day quarantine (GMA, 19 April 2020). However, since the Enhanced Community Lockdown in Luzon was extended until May 15, those heading to the provinces may be unable to do so. Ms. Fischer said that there is no clear re-integration program for repatriated OFWs.
Since the1970s, the Philippines has been exporting its labour force to different countries. OFWs are reduced to money-making machines that keep the economy afloat, thanks to the 10.22 % contribution to the Gross Domestic Product of the 2.2 million OFWs around the world (The Global Economy, 2018).
Perhaps, the Philippines is the only country which has enacted laws for the protection of the migrant workers since 1982 with the creation of POEA and OWWA, and RA 8042. It is also the only country which also requires OFWs to pay various fees to be able to return home and back to their workplaces. But none protect them from the neglect in their home country. Instead of giving assistance, the government requires a lot of paper works for OFWs who wish to integrate back to their society.
The COVID-19 exposed the weakness of the Philippine government when it comes to the delivery of social services and providing decent employment opportunities for its people. With its pro-China stance, the government provides jobs to thousands of offshore gaming online to Chinese nationals in the Philippines, it already denies the Filipino workers employment. But it is not only during Duterte’s regime. For decades, Filipinos are conditioned to become human exports in the guise of better life and opportunities abroad. This is mainly to address the perennial problem of joblessness in the country. Instead of the state’s obligation, the OFWs bear the burden of providing better life for their families. Yet, the rising cost of living, expensive education, the deteriorating health care system, and reduced social services make it almost impossible for an ordinary OFW to make ends meet. Unless the Philippine government addresses the root cause of poverty which is systemic corruption in all levels of governance, migration continues. But with border closures and economic slowdown, the Filipinos are left scrambling for survival in their host countries or repatriating with their shattered dreams.
Bohane, H and Novio, E.(23 April 2020)COVID-19 takes heavy financial toll on Filipino migrant workers in Vietnam. Inquirer.net. https://bit.ly/353ybxX
Novio, E. (10 April 2020).Filipinos get option to stay in Cambodia, which has zero COVID-19 death, or return to PH. Inquirer.net https://bit.ly/354hAKf
Panti,L (6 April 2020)IATF: Social amelioration aid not for 4Ps, formal sector workers, non-indigent elderly. https://bit.ly/2xMbyC5
Satrusayang, C. (25 April 2020) Thailand discovers 53 new coronavirus cases; majority of cases from migrant detention center prompting fears of Singapore scenario. Thai Enquirer. https://bit.ly/2VEImpA
RA 8042 https://bit.ly/354Z7xa