Filipino migrant workers struggle amid COVID-19 restrictions

Filipino migrant workers in Brunei. Photo: User:Jpquidores / CC BY-SA

Thousands of Filipino migrant workers sent home due to COVID-19 are facing an uncertain welcome.  

By Zachary Frye                                             

According to the Filipino government, in 2019 there were 2.2 million individuals officially designated as Overseas Filipino Workers, otherwise known as migrant workers, who reside and work in another country temporarily.

For a segment of these workers, the coronavirus crisis is making a significant impact on their lives. As of June 3, over 50,000 Filipino migrants working abroad have been repatriated after they lost their jobs due to COVID-19.

Upon returning to the Philippines, these workers were required to submit to a two-week quarantine period, where there were kept in government health facilities, cruise ships and hotels to ensure they wouldn’t spread the virus throughout the country.

Upon discharge, some of these workers faced an uncertain welcome into the country. Officials recommended they go back to their hometowns until the threat of the virus passed, but some provincial authorities refused to allow the migrants entry, prompting President Rodrigo Duterte to warn local governments against impeding them.

“It is the constitutional right of people to go home—to travel and go home,” Duterte said. “Do not impede it. Do not obstruct the movement of people because you run the risk of getting sued criminally,” he added.

By the end of the year, the government expects about 500,000 more migrant workers to come back to the Philippines. The specter of overcrowded quarantine centers and mixed local reactions, however, put migrants’ health and wellbeing in further jeopardy.

As virus transmissions accelerate in several areas of the world, creating new hotspots in parts of the Middle East, Asia and Latin America, the health threat has not yet subsided for migrant workers. Serious questions remain as to whether the Philippines is ready for its next waves of returnees.

Some migrants are getting stranded amid lockdowns

According to data sent to ASEAN Today by the Philippines Country Office of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), just over 43,000 workers were already released from quarantine, leaving about 7,000 individuals still in government care.

So far, about 2% of migrant returnees tested positive for COVID-19. Upon their release, they were free to return home and onward transportation was reportedly made available by the government.

With that said, according to IOM Philippines, the government and its partners are identifying individuals struggling to return home, otherwise known as Locally Stranded Individuals (LMIs).

Some LMIs are migrant workers and students getting stuck in Manila, apparently falling through the cracks amid government efforts to bring them home.

In mid-March, the government implemented a lockdown on Luzon, the island where Manila is located, limiting public transportation out of the city.

On June 5, a migrant worker from a province far from Manila was found unconscious near a major highway and later died after she was unable find a bus to take her home, prompting a national outcry.

“These are the people who don’t have homes [in the capital] and don’t have enough capacity to finance their stay here in Metro Manila,” said Marcelino Escalada, General Manager of the Philippines’ National Housing Authority.

Per IOM’s report, most LMIs never left the country in the first place but became stranded in Manila after their recruitment agencies abandoned them after the lockdown. Many of those stranded were from the southern island of Mindanao, hoping to find domestic work in the Middle East.

Migrant workers should be celebrated for helping move the Filipino economy forward

While the government is seeking to safely repatriate migrants back to the Philippines, the COVID-19 crisis is throwing the precarious system in which many of them work into sharp relief.

Not only can predatory recruitment agencies in the Philippines take advantage of migrant workers, many of whom come from poor backgrounds, there is also a substantial risk of exploitation once they reach their destination country.

Sometimes job placement agencies charge unreasonable prices which a migrant worker is then obliged to pay off, arguably resulting a system that resembles indentured servitude.

Once in-country, often in places where there is no shared language or understanding of domestic laws or culture, migrant workers are sometimes financially exploited. In worst-case scenarios, they are abused.

Some sectors that are popular with Filipino migrant workers, like domestic work, are especially prone to abuse, as much of the relationship between employer and employee occurs behind closed doors.

Nevertheless, many of these workers play a significant role in supporting their families back home. Although individual remittances to the Philippines are often small amounts of money, in aggregate they inject billions of dollars into the Filipino economy, contributing to sustained GDP growth and reduced poverty rates.

According to the Philippine National Statistics Authority, remittances from migrant workers between April and September 2019 alone were estimated at 211.9 billion pesos (approximately US$ 4.2 billion).

In 2018, migrant remittances accounted for just under 10% of total GDP in the country.

In addition to basic human rights concerns, the government has a clear obligation to support these workers, especially during a time of crisis, as they are one of the bedrocks of the Filipino economy.

Inefficient government quarantines and potential overcrowding put migrants at further risk

Though IOM data shows most migrant returnees successfully return home, the government estimates that hundreds of thousands more may arrive in the country before the end of the year. This should prompt the government to ensure its quarantine facilities and procedures are safe, transparent and streamlined.

While it would be dangerous for the government to allow migrant workers back in the country without robust precautions, the screening process needs to be straightforward.

Late last month, testing delays and slow disbursement of heath certifications needed to exit quarantine led to bottlenecks in the system for safe release, prompting some returnees to characterize the process as “spontaneous.”

In the case of an overburdened quarantine system, the possibility that cramped conditions could be a catalyst for viral transmission is a serious concern.

In the meantime, President Duterte is attempting to reduce the threat of contagion in other ways.

In early June, the government started a program called “Back to the Province” which offers money and other incentives for families that agree to leave Manila to reduce overcrowding.

On June 11, however, the policy was suspended for at least a month, with the government acknowledging it needed to “prioritize stranded OFWs [migrant workers], construction workers, students and tourists.”

Back to the Province is a creative policy prescription in response to extraordinary social and economic disruptions and observers should applaud the fact that officials are flexible and responsive to the situation on the ground.

The Philippines will need to give similar attention to the next waves of returning workers and plan ahead to combat any strain on its screening and quarantine systems.  

As crucial sources of support for the Filipino economy and loved ones to countless families across the country, migrant workers deserve to be treated with respect and competence as they head home. The onus is on the government and its partners to ensure that happens.

About the Author

Zachary Frye
Zach is a writer and researcher based in Bangkok. He studied Political Science at DePaul University and International Relations at Harvard. Interests include human rights, political affairs, and the intersections of culture and religion.