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OFWs demand probe of repeat free riders in COVID repatriation program

Migrante International (MI) called for a deeper investigation into reports of free riders taking advantage of the government’s repatriation program for distressed overseas Filipino workers (OFWs).

Reacting to Commission of Audit’s (COA) finding that thousands of supposed OFWs availed of emergency repatriation from two to five times and receiving free flights, lodging and food from the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA), MI said it is appalled and angered by the report.

In its 2022 annual report on the OWWA, the COA said 3,707 overseas Filipino workers availed of free flights under the government’s COVID-19 emergency repatriation program more than once, indicating the program was used for other purposes.

“This finding is most disgusting, reeks of corruption, deserves immediate and thorough investigation, and should result in responsible officials being sacked and held accountable,” MI chairperson Joanna Concepcion said.

“Some people are going on travels, maybe even junkets, by using the people’s money, taking advantage of services devoted to distressed OFWs, and depriving OFWs and migrant Filipinos of funds for much-needed services,” Concepcion added.

MI also pointed out that since most of the frequent flyers were from Northern Mindanao, the practice reeks of patronage that may only be pulled off with the direction of high government officials.

“Where were these supposed OFWs going? Some secret government project abroad perhaps?” Concepcion asked.

“We demand an immediate and thorough investigation into this mess. Those responsible in high places should be sacked and held accountable,” she added.

Concepcion said Congress’ deliberation of the proposed 2024 national budget is the right time for the government to be transparent with regard to the number of repatriated OFWs under the program.

With more than 10 million Filipinos abroad, the government carries out emergency repatriation in the event of any political unrest or natural calamities in their host countries.

OFWs distressed by medical, psycho-social, or legal problems requiring treatment, counselling or legal representation are given priority under the program, according to the Migrant Workers and Overseas Filipinos Act of 1995.

The Department of Labor and Employment reported 800 thousand Filipinos whose jobs were affected by the COVID-19 pandemic were repatriated as of November 2021.  “Emergency repatriation is therefore for OFWs who, because of widespread unemployment and poverty in the country, tried their luck abroad but faced unfortunate circumstances. It is repugnant that people will be travelling or going on junkets by taking advantage of services for said OFWs. Ang kapal ng mukha! (They are shameless!)” Concepcion said. # (Raymund B. Villanueva)

OFW contract substitutions rising in UAE; migrant groups accusing PH government of ‘slacking’

A migrant’s organization accused the Philippine government of negligence in protecting the rights of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), reporting rising cases of contract substitutions and other labor rights violations.

Migrante Middle East said it is disturbed that Philippine-based manpower services and UAE employers are increasingly substituting and revising master contracts of Filipino cleaning services workers without their consent.

 “It is dismaying to know this is happening despite the numerous, cumbersome requirements most OFWs have to go through and abide by which, the state claims, are supposed to protect Filipino migrant workers,” the group added.

Migrante Middle East said it had noticed a rise in contract substitution complaints since early 2020.

Majority of OFWs victimized by the violation are directly hired in the Philippines through Philippine Overseas Employment Administration job orders, it said.

“In all cases, the cleaners suffered multiple labor malpractices. Grueling extended working hours without overtime pay and proper rest, unjust salary deductions, and other unlawful company policies superseding the local labor law were imposed upon the employees,” the group reported.

“In addition, the service workers endured verbal and mental abuse and sexual harassment. Needless to say, these conditions had adverse effects on the employees, both physically and mentally. Sadly, some have even resulted in death,” it added.

The Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) said there are an estimated 1.83 million OFWs worldwide in 2021, 60.2 percent of whom are women.

The UAE is host to 14.4 percent of OFWs, the second biggest country of work for migrant Filipino workers worldwide after Saudi Araibia.

The PSA added that 40 percent of jobs given to OFWs are “elementary occupations” that involve, among others, cleaning and basic maintenance in households and hotels.

Migrante Middle East said it calls upon the Philippine government and its local representatives to take a hard look at the plight of the OFWs in the cleaning sector and take immediate action against the ​​“unscrupulous agencies” involved. 

“Holding guilty parties liable is only but a part. We also challenge the respective Philippine authorities to devise preventive and long-lasting solutions to ensure and uphold the rights and welfare of Filipino migrant workers,” the group said. # (Raymund B. Villanueva)

Migrante International to gov’t: Help OFWs sent home by Kuwait

Migrante International (MI) called on the Philippine government to provide immediate assistance to overseas workers sent back by Kuwait resulting from the ongoing dispute between the two governments.

MI reported that many overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) have been offloaded from their flights while others have been repatriated since the emirate halted the issuance of entry and labor visas to Filipinos effective May 10.

Since May 12, 78 OFWs have been repatriated and a reported 130 OFWs are stranded daily, MI said.

“Not allowed to enter Kuwait, they will not earn the salary that they would have sent to their families or used to start paying their debts,” MI said in a statement.

“We condemn the Kuwait government for sending back OFWs because it sees the Philippine government as abetting violations of labor agreements by providing shelters to distressed OFWs,” it added.

Kuwait’s First Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister Talaal Al Khalid issued a circular May 10 announcing the ban and accusing the Philippines of failing to comply with a labor agreement between the two countries.

The 2020 agreement was signed after an OFW deployment ban to Kuwait was issued by the Philippine government after the deaths of domestic workers Joanna Demafelis and Jeanelyn Villaverde in 2018 and 2019, respectively.

The agreement commits both governments to ensuring the protection and welfare of Filipino workers.

According to media reports, Kuwait specifically complains of the existence of Philippine government-maintained shelters for “runaway OFWs.”

Undersecretary for Migrant Workers Eduardo de Vega told reporters that if the shelters are the issue, “…[T]hen it would be non-negotiable for the Philippines because we will not close down our shelters there since it is required under our law.”

MI said it agrees with the Philippine government in maintaining the shelters and should in fact expand the program.

“Domestic workers, who comprise a big chunk of OFWs in Kuwait, are most vulnerable to labor exploitation and sexual abuse and violence, especially in foreign lands,” MI said.

The group added that the Philippine government must also oppose the emirate’s kafala system that makes employers’ control over OFWs nearly absolute in order to uphold workers’ and migrants’ rights. # (Raymund B. Villanueva)

Arbitrary rules show immigration bureau is ‘disrespectful, rude’—Migrante International

A migrant group condemned what it called arbitrary restrictions imposed by the Bureau of Immigration (BI) against Filipino travelers its agents suspect may be victims of human trafficking.

Following reports of several passengers barred from travelling in March alone, Migrante International (MI) said the BI may have violated the right to travel of migrant workers and other overseas bound Filipinos.

Mi cited the case of Abu Dhabi-based expatriate Natalie dumlao who was not allowed to board her flight to Hong Kong last March 20 despite presenting all the required travel documents.

The immigration officer told her to cancel her United Arab Emirate residence visa first before being allowed to proceed with her pleasure trip with her partner.

MI said there is no such rule in the books.

The group also cited a Dubai-bound Filipino off to visit his sister who was offloaded twice last month despite carrying travel documents.

An Israel-bound Filipina was also asked unreasonable questions and asked to present a graduation yearbook at the immigration counter in the same time period.

Social media lit up with more stories of travelers prevented from boarding their flights after Dumlao’s complaint became viral.

“These incidents clearly show the arbitrary imposition of flight restrictions on OFWs who are about to depart the country. These restrictions violate OFWs’ right to travel and work abroad and are openings for bribery and corruption. This is no way to treat the country’s supposed new heroes, the lifesavers of the country’s economy,” MI said.

The group added that the arbitrary restrictions show that the BI and the Marcos government are not serious in fighting human trafficking.

“On the contrary, these actions show that they are a failure in this area,” MI said.

MI said that if the goal is to combat or stop human trafficking, the BI and the Marcos government can increase their information and education efforts against human trafficking among prospective migrants and the public.

“They can look for and punish human traffickers, and not the suspected victims,” MI said.

Disrespectful immigration officers

While saying many are doing their job well, MI also accused the immigration bureau of having some of the most disrespectful, if not outright rude, immigration officers in the world.

“We blame this on the orientation given to them; they should not be playing their present role in fighting human trafficking,” MI said.

The BI has since apologized to the victims.

MI added that if the Marcos government is really serious in fighting human trafficking, it should create decent jobs in the Philippines.

“So far, it is an utter failure in this respect, as unemployment continues to increase and no palpable efforts are seen with regard to job generation efforts that are led by the government,” it said.

The group reiterated its call for the junking of exorbitant and money-making restrictions on OFWs to travel, such as the Overseas Employment Certificate, which is just an added burden, another state exaction on OFWs. # (Raymund B. Villanueva)

OFWs welcome Ople’s dialogue offer

Migrante International to press demand scrapping of ‘burdensome’ requirements and fees with incoming migrant workers secretary

Migrant workers welcomed incoming Department of Migrant Workers secretary Susan “Toots” Ople’s pronouncement to look into their demands to scrap recently-added requirements and fees before deployment abroad.

Migrante International (MI) said Ople’s openness to dialogue with Filipino migrants and review the Overseas Employment Certificate (OEC) requirement and other mandatory fees when she formally assumes office on Friday, July 1, is “much appreciated.”

“Incoming Secretary Ople’s invitation to initiate virtual town hall meetings with Filipino migrants is much appreciated by MIGRANTE International regional members who are looking forward to meet the Secretary and convey to her the issues of land and sea-based members,” MI chairperson Joanna Concepcion said in a statement.

In a Rappler interview on March 30, Ople said she plans to hold virtual town hall meetings as well as conduct a “systems review” to see how the government deals with overseas Filipino workers (OFWs).

MI said the outgoing Rodrigo Duterte government has made it harder for OFWs to apply for permits as they are required by the (Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) to pay Balik-Manggagawa fees, Philhealth, Pag Ibig and OWWA membership contributions in order to secure OEC before deployment abroad.

Newly-hired OFWs also need to settle “onerous” charges from recruitment agencies and other private and government offices, the group added.

Concepcion said Ople’s planned town hall meetings would be an opportunity for them to reiterate demands for the scrapping of the new requirements and fees. 

MI said they will also ask the incoming secretary to set up more temporary shelters abroad for migrant workers in distress, legal and counseling assistance to those in jail, and right to security of tenure for seafarers.

The group also said they will ask Ople to help bring Mary Jane Veloso, in jail in Indonesia since 2010 for alleged illegal drug trafficking, home.

“We hope that Secretary Ople can also help in the immediate return of Mary Jane including other Filipinos who are still languishing in jail abroad, Concepcion said. # (Raymund B. Villanueva)

OFWs oppose new order on mandatory Pag-IBIG membership

Overseas Filipinos opposed the new resolution making membership to the government’s housing fund mandatory, calling the measure “extortion”.

Migrante International (MI) said overseas Filipino workers (OFW) have always been the target of government money-making schemes and the new order by the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) and the Home Development Mutual Fund (Pag-IBIG) is another.

In a joint resolution this month, the two government agencies said all OFWs must be Pag-IBIG members in order to secure overseas employment certificates (OEC), a prerequisite to applying for jobs abroad.

The government said the new measure is meant to ensure that OFWs will receive uninterrupted benefits from Pag-IBIG, such as loan packages and other programs.

The order is an addition to the earlier requisite for OFWs to secure exit clearance from the POEA as well as POEA and Overseas Workers Welfare Administration memberships, travel insurance, Social Security System and PhilHealth memberships before being allowed to fly abroad.

MI also revealed that the government has imposed additional medical, training and other processing requirements during the COVID pandemic.

MI said the order, issued only a month away from the May 2022 national and local elections, is another desperate device by the Rodrigo Duterte government to milk more funds from the OFWs.

“This is just another mechanism of the Labor Export Program (LEP). The mandatory Pag-IBIG membership only aggravates the current critical condition of Filipinos who are forced to seek overseas employment in order for their families to survive the severe economic crisis brought about by the endless hike in oil price and basic commodities,” MI said.

Jhoanna Concepcion, MI chairperson, said that without an OEC, OFWs are prevented from leaving the country even if they are already in possession of all the necessary working and travel requirements set by their respective host countries.

“Our own government controls our movement. Now, the government is using the OEC to extract money from our hard-working OFWs. Is this the kind of treatment our OFWs deserved?” Concepcion asked.

MI said it plans on mobilizing its chapters in three major global regions and two major countries in North America to protest against this recent mandatory fee and at the same time will revive its call for the abolition of the OEC.

“We also challenge our presidentiables to speak against this new mandatory fee and, if they are elected, we hope they will provide us with relief and not add more burden to our sufferings,” she said. # (Raymund B. Villanueva)

Covid-positive OFWs in HK forced to stay in parks in cold weather

A number of Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) who have tested positive of Covid-19 are being terminated, abandoned and forced to live in parks in cold weather in Hong Kong.

Migrante International (MI) and the United Filipinos in Hong Kong (Unifil-HK) reported that several employers of Filipino domestic workers in the territory have refused to take back their employees who are sick with Covid-19.

“[They have] no immediate place to go as they were advised to stay home by the HK health authorities since they were found to be asymptomatic,” MI said in a statement.

Unifil and Migrante-HK secretary general Eman Villanueva said in a radio interview Friday that they received reports of OFWs staying in parks and sleeping on cold concrete floors surrounded only by their luggage.

“Some non-government organizations are trying to find temporary shelter for the sick OFWs but it should really be the Philippine government’s concern,” Villanueva told DZRH.

He added that not all Covid-positive migrant workers have access to NGOs or others for assistance.

5th Covid wave in HK

The HK-based Mission for Migrant Workers said it has assisted no less than 10 domestic workers who were “preliminary positive” (with Covid-19) and were left in the cold the past 2-3 days.

The humanitarian organization said the situation is “a developing crisis due to the fifth wave of COVID-19 pandemic” in the territory.

The mission added that HK hospitals and quarantine facilities are overwhelmed with Covid-19 patients, migrant domestic workers who have mild symptoms were told to isolate at home.

“With no assistance available, these workers are abandoned on the street overnight, stranded at hospitals, lacking food and supplies. Some are not eligible for public healthcare due to contract termination,” the mission revealed.

[The Mission for Migrant Workers has launched this appeal to Help Abandoned Domestic Workers in Hong Kong.]

PH gov’t abandonment

MI and Unifil-HK added the situation of terminated and sick OFWs is made worse by the apparent abandonment by the Philippine government.

“Clearly, government neglect is the trademark of the Philippine government whose one of the main sources of revenues is the mandatory collections of fees imposed by the PH government under its Labor Export Program,” MI said.

The groups demanded that the Manila government through its Consulate General in the territory to make immediate arrangements with the HK administrators to set up a free isolation center for COVID-19 positive Filipino migrant workers.

“We also demand the PH government for an immediate cash relief to OFWs who were terminated and affected by the pandemic in Hong Kong and other countries,” the group added.

The PH Consulate General in HK has yet to reply to requests for comment. # (Raymund B. Villanueva)

MIGRANTE INT’L: Unpaid Saudi OFWs may claim P10k aid from OWWA

Overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) with pending salary claims in Saudi Arabia may now apply for financial assistance with the Overseas Workers’ Welfare Administration (OWWA), Migrante International (MI) announced.

While the thousands of affected OFWs wait for the result of their claim to unpaid salaries and benefits, MI said OWWA finally decided on giving a financial aid package of P10,000 per worker.

“This is a victory for our Saudi OFWs who took collective action to push for financial assistance from DOLE (Department of Labor and Employment) and OWWA while their labor claims are pending in Saudi Arabia,” the group said.

OWWA’s Financial Relief Assistance Program announcement. (https://frap.owwa.gov.ph/?fbclid=IwAR2mfthznaMH7e3DFKDQ0uA6bXnhBrsEHQDn55txRj0gSfaA2l8KEbLIQsU)

About 9,000 OFWs were forced to return to the Philippines in 2016 after they stopped receiving remuneration from so-called Arab mega recruitment agencies responsible for their deployment to the kingdom.

Last October, labor secretary Silvestre Bello III said the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) is expected to pay P4.6 billion in unpaid salaries to the OFWs in exchange for the lifting of the Philippine government deployment ban.

MI however pressed the Philippine government to “urgently and proactively” address the non-payment of salaries of the affected OFWs.

“DOLE must also ensure that it provides financial aid to those currently stranded in Saudi Arabia and were likewise affected by the Saudi Crisis because based on the requirements, they are excluded from this financial aid program,” MI added.

The migrants group also said the Philippine government must repatriate OFWs stranded in Saudi Arabia who now wish to come home. # (Raymund B. Villanueva)

OFW slams ‘unsuitable’ OWWA quarantine facility

Hotel suffers water supply interruption since Tuesday evening

A retuning overseas Filipino worker (OFW) complained of being placed in an “inadequate” quarantine facility by the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) after returning from Singapore starting last Saturday night.

In a message to Kodao, “PB”, an engineer, said Red Doorz Hotel along Epifanio delos Santos Avenue (EDSA)in Pasay City only had “closet-sized” rooms for him and his fellow OFWs that are “unsuitable” as quarantine facilities that lasts for days.

PB and fellow returning OFWs are required to complete a five-day quarantine until Thursday having been tested negative of the Covid-19 virus.

“Our room door size has the same width as a standard toilet door. The entrance could not be described as a walk way as its width is less than a meter width leading to the bed. The room is only two meters wide that do not allow us to open our standard large travel luggage. Our travel luggage is dirty and we have to place it on the bed!” he said.

Returning OFW slams size of room at OWWA quarantine facility he says even backpacking tourists would not stay in for more than 12 hours. (Photo by PB)

The OFW said their rooms are only good for backpacking transient tourists who only need room to wash and sleep for a night.

PB added their rooms have a single-sized bed, have their own bathrooms, are air-conditioned, with an electrical outlet, wi-fi access and a wall television set. They were also provided with a single-use soap and a sachet of shampoo.

 “No backpacker tourist stays in this type of room for more than 12 hours without stepping out. And yet we will be here at least five days,” he complained.

“Clearly this room is not designed for a five-day lockdown quarantine of a travel-weary OFW,” PB added.

Returning OFW said his room is so cramped he could not even open his luggage. (Photo by PB)

‘Stressful arrival and check in’

PB said their group of 25 OFWs from Singapore arrived at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport at about 6:30 Saturday night and were processed through by the bureau of Quarantine at about 7 PM.

Their group were through the Bureau of Customs only at about 9 PM, however, he said.

By then hungry, they were given “bland adobo” with a piece of chicken leg and water for dinner.

They were herded into a bus that arrived at RedDoorz EDSA-Pasay at 9:30 in the evening but were made to wait at the hotel garage for hours.

PB claimed that the staff he asked told him that OWWA did not give the hotel was not given advance notice on their arrival.

The group also suffered water supply interruption since Tuesday evening.

“Apparently, OWWA has this practice of very late notice to hotels like them. They couldn’t prepare in advance of course. And so we waited at the extension lobby of the hotel, which means its garage,” PB said.

PB was taken to his room at 11:40 PM, he revealed.

Returning OFW said his travel-weary group was made to wait at the hotel’s garage for hours while their check-in is being processed by OWWA until midnight. (Photo by PB)

“Theres no forward planning by the OWWA…There is no OWWA pre-arrival check of the rooms. Don’t they have any standard room requirement for quarantine? My housemates (as we call our collective group) were so stressed out from travel and the long wait in the garage (lobby extension),” he added.

PB said he quizzed the OWWA staff assigned to their group who reportedly said he himself was not aware RedDoorz EDSA-Pasay is still a quarantine facility.

“There’s a clear mismanagement of the influx of OFW arrivals this holiday season. OWWA knew of the total number of expected OFW per dayand yet there is lack of planning and coordination among themselves,” PB said.

OWWA did not reply to Kodao’s request for comment. # (Raymund B. Villanueva)

OFWs press for scrapping of mandatory PhilHealth membership

A group of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) and overseas Filipinos pressed their demand for the scrapping of the mandatory Philippine Health Insurance Corp. (PhilHealth) membership amid difficulties brought them by the coronavirus pandemic.

In a statement, Migrante International said OFWs have been facing job losses amidst the pandemic that is aggravated by “onerous government fees” such as the proposed PhilHealth premium rate increase this year.

The group said mandatory PhilHealth membership has been a burden for OFWs since the passage of the Universal Healthcare Act (UHC) signed by President Rodrigo Duterte on February 20, 2019.

The law requires OFWs to be PhilHealth members before leaving for work abroad.

Migrante earlier said majority of the OFWs have no use for mandatory membership as PhilHealth is practically useless in helping them pay medical bills when they get sick abroad.

Instead, Migrante said PhilHealth membership should be “voluntary for those with capacity to pay contributions.”  

Migrante also scored the corruption at the health insurance agency that has yet to properly account for at least Php 15 billion in allegedly misspent funds.

“PhilHealth has been used as a tool for unscrupulous health officials appointed by the President to amass billions of members’ contributions for their own selfish interests,” the group said.

“Why should contributors suffer by paying increased premiums in response to the agency’s lack of funds?” the group also asked.

Migrante demands “corrupt” PhilHealth officials involved be held accountable and prosecuted. 

Migrante also said OFWs believe that Duterte’s recent announcement to defer the collection of increased PhilHealth premiums is only a tactic to quell the anger and anxiety of the people especially during this COVID crisis.

“Merely deferring the increased premium does nothing to calm down the people,” Migrante said in its statement.

Instead, the group said OFWs want a genuine, pro-people, universal health care program through free and comprehensive medical and health services. # (Raymund B. Villanueva)