Tue. Dec 1st, 2020
Health workers carry dead bodies of COVID-19 out from a hospital.

Can Silvestre Bello III please account for the OFW deaths during the Covid-19 pandemic?

These are times when the Labor secretary can no longer hide under the cover of President Duterte or the skirts of the Inter Agency Task Force on Emerging Infectious Diseases.

Maximum transparency is of utmost necessity here and any cover-up should be considered criminal in intent.

An estimated 10 to 12 million Filipinos work abroad. 

In 2019, they sent home between $33.47bn to $35.1bn in remittances, accounting for just under 10 percent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) in 2019, according to the World Bank.

A few days ago, the Philippine News Agency reported that according to the latest data from the Department of Foreign Affairs “about 3,000 of the recorded Covid-19 deaths among the overseas Filipino workers came from the Middle East and Africa.”

Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. said: “That’s the highest, Middle East and Africa. The Americas 373, Asia and the Pacific 492, Europe 305.

This is chilling down the spine because deaths inside the Philippines have only tolled 1,186 as of this writing.

Last Sunday, according to the Global Nation of Inquirer.net, Labor Secretary Bello said there are 282 remains of Filipinos in Saudi Arabia that are for disposition, but 50 of them who died of COVID-19 will be buried there.

Bello further said that his office had received communication from King Salman giving the Philippines 72 hours to return home the dead OFWs.

“Cremation is not allowed (in Saudi), that’s why the directive of King Salman is for us to bring them home. But the decision of the IATF is to bury those who died from Covid-19 there, while the remaining 200 plus we will bring them home (in batches),” he explained.

After just a day, Arab News said “the Philippine ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Adnan Alonto, also on Monday said that a total of 353 OFWs’ bodies were now up for disposition in the Kingdom.”

“Of the 353 dead Filipino nationals, 107 were due to Covid-19,” the envoy claimed.

The numbers kept jumping.

From 282 remains to 353 bodies. From 50 dying of Covid-19 to 107.

Worst, 246 of the 353 “died of natural causes and various crime-related incidents,” the envoy added.

What has become glaring here is that our Department of Labor primarily tasked to protecting our labor force abroad is definitely clueless as to what has exactly happened to our unsung heroes overseas who have now become statistics.

Suicides in Cruise ships

Actually I have not yet recovered from the news that on June 9, Mariah Jocson,  a Filipina, was found dead in her cabin in the Royal Caribbean ship, Harmony of the Seas, which was anchored off Barbados.

Secretary Locsin Jr. confirmed that Jocson took her own life, “It is my sad duty to report that a 28-year-old female mariner committed suicide in her cabin in the ship where she’s had to stay because repatriation flights back to the Philippines have been suspended again,” Locsin tweeted.

“We are tartly reminded that Filipino resilience is no excuse to stretch them to breaking point.

Di sila goma; tao sila (They are not rubber; they are people),” he quipped.

Locsin said Jocson’s was the second suicide among overseas Filipino workers (OFW) who were unable to come home since the Covid-19 crisis struck.

The blog Cruise Law News said Jocson, who was from Mandaluyong City, was a newly hired assistant waitress of the Rhapsody of the Seas, which is also operated by Royal Caribbean. She and the ship’s crew were later quarantined at the Harmony of the Seas.

The same news blog said that since May 1, eight other crew members had reportedly committed suicide, and that another employee had attempted to do so.

The suicides included that of a 32-year-old Filipino hotel utility employee who died in mid-May on Virgin Voyages’ Scarlet Lady anchored off the coast of Florida.

Incompetence throughout the pandemic

Last April 23, about 300 returning overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) were blocked by residents of Lian, Batangas at about 2 o’clock in the morning, as their convoy of 13 buses were on their way to Matabungkay.

The OFWs arrived last Wednesday from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar and were about to begin a 14-day quarantine protocol according to the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration.

After being stranded in their buses for four hours until 6:00 am, they were finally accommodated in a hotel in nearby Nasugbu,

An OFW who requested anonymity, said that on top of over half-a-day of waiting after they arrived at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport, they have not taken a bath for the past three days since their travel from various countries in the Middle East.

There is no excuse why DILG was not informed of this activity, considering that common sense dictates that the pertinent local government unit and police security would inevitably be pivotal over sensitive matter on anything that has Covid-19 implications.

The convoy also did not have any government official of a rank that could manage the situation that Labor Undersecretary Hans Cacdac had to be summoned to Batangas to mollify the situation appealing to Lian Mayor Isagani Bolompo to seek a solution and apologize to the OFWs for the awful inconvenience.

Interior Secretary Eduardo Año also said that he would send police escorts blaming miscoordination by DOLE as the root cause of the fiasco in a radio interview.

Banning nurses with signed contracts

A week earlier, Bello’s removal for proven incompetence and corruption was being prayed for by the health workers who were banned healthcare workers from leaving the country.

 In its Resolution No. 09 Series of 2020 signed on April 2, the Philippine Overseas Employment Authority said the following workers cannot be deployed “until the national state of emergency is lifted and until Covid-19-related travel restrictions are lifted at the destination country:

“Medical doctor, Nurse, Microbiologist, Molecular biologist, Clinical analyst, Respiratory therapist, Pharmacist, Laboratory technician, radiologic technician, Nursing assistant, Operator of medical equipment, Supervisor of health services and personal care and Repairman of medical-hospital equipment.”

But the ban was not disclosed to the public until April 10, albeit by surprise, when immigration officials prevented Filipino nurses working for the United Kingdom’s National Health Service from catching their flight at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport.

The cancellation of their flight to fulfill their signed contracts abroad was met with overwhelming protests from formal as well as informal sectors. Social media bled for days.

A coalition of labor unions and advocacy groups vehemently objected to the resolution saying “other than being a violation of the right to travel, this ban might be considered an order imposing involuntary servitude prohibited under Article III, Section 18 (2) of the Constitution.”

Nurses have also started an online petition, emphasizing that most of them already have existing contracts and the deployment ban may affect their visa validity.

Pass the OFW department bill

I can cite no less than a dozen other Rip Van Winkle episodes that have been glossed over by Secretary Bello.

In fact, had Duterte not given DOLE a deadline of a week to send tens of thousands stranded in Manila to their respective provinces, Bello would have just hidden under the president’s chair.

I am not just about to further build a case against him, after all I have already filed ten criminal complaints against him in the Office of the Ombudsman, with corresponding administrative cases lodged with the Presidential Anti-Corruption Commission.

Masyado kasing madulas itong boardmate ni presidente sa YMCA Arroceros hostel noong law students pa sila. After in-expose ko si Bello sa presser showing the compendium of evidences I have gathered against him, inuto niya si Pangulo na tumawag ng peace talks with Jose Maria Sison, misleading him to supercede an earlier cancellation of further peace talks with the communist terrorists.

What I did instead is to go proactive drawing public attention to the conundrum affecting our returning overseas workers in the midst of the pandemic, citing the inutility of the Senate to respond to a changing social environment affecting OFWs and the impotence of the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) to protect them.

In a Senate hearing last May, Senator Christopher Lawrence “Bong” Tesoro Go aired deplorable conditions of OFWs being forced to stay in health quarantine facilities beyond the mandated fourteen-day quarantine period, and those among them in distress not being able to return home due to limitations in the delivery of services from government agencies such as Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) and the Maritime Industry Authority (MIA).

The proposed measure aims to address perennial issues such as inefficient coordination among offices concerned with OFW affairs; lack of immediate legal assistance to OFWs in distress; lack of full migration cycle approach in promoting migrant’s rights from pre-employment, onsite and reintegration services; and lack of shared database systems that contains relevant information on all OFWs to aid in tracking their status and fast track delivery of assistance to distressed workers. 

 “Currently, services and information are scattered throughout several offices. The issues encountered by our OFWs prove that we need a dedicated agency to provide efficient and better delivery of services to meet their needs.

“Thus my call to establish a Department for Filipinos Overseas,” Go said in the virtual senate hearing.

The senator filed the bill in the Upper House on July 2, 2019. President Duterte included his Senate Bill 202 in his administration’s priority legislative agenda.

Voting on third reading, 173-11, with no abstentions, the House of Representatives approved March 11, 2020 its counterpart Bill 5832 which calls for the creation of the Department of Filipinos Overseas and Foreign Employment.

To date, the bill is languishing in the Senate. Natapakan ng committee hearings sa expired ABS-CBN franchise.

 Mr. President, ilang OFW pa ang dapat mamatay bago ninyo sibakin ang dead horse ninyo sa gabinete at ipasa ng Senado ang OFW department bill?

What more would be sacrificed to give justice to overseas Filipinos? (ia/SPH)

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