Romualdez backs funds for OFWs’ repatriation

Martin Romualdez
House Majority Leader and Leyte Rep Martin Romualdez Photo by RYAN PONCE PACPACO

HOUSE Majority Leader and Leyte Rep Martin Romualdez on Friday assured government agencies that the House of Representatives will
help in the allocation of funds to support the immediate repatriation of tens of thousands of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) who have been displaced by the coronavirus disease-19 (COVID-19) pandemic.

“Isa lang po ang intensyon namin: makita ang buong problema at malaman kung paano kami makakatulong. We are besieged by complaints from our constituents regarding the plight of OFWs during this pandemic,” Romualdez said during the briefing by the House committee on public accounts chaired by Anakalusugan party-list Rep. Mike Defensor on the government’s general approach on the migration policy response to COVID-19.

“Let us all continue working hand-in-hand. Together, I know we cannot fail and we will defeat COVID-19 together,” said Romualdez,
co-chairperson of the Defeat COVID-19 Ad Hoc Committee (DCC) with Speaker Alan Peter Cayetano.

Romualdez, chairman of the powerful House committee on rules, said the leadership of Cayetano has been working very hard to protect the rights and welfare of OFWs.

“Bear in mind that we, your Representatives, are your partners in defending the rights of OFWs and promoting their welfare. Even before this pandemic struck, we had worked hand-in-hand to steer the approval in this August chamber of the bill creating the Department of Filipino Overseas and Foreign Employment. Together with Speaker Cayetano as principal author, we consulted your agencies every step of the way to
seek a Whole-of-Government approach to problems plaguing our OFWs,” Romualdez explained.

“Naipakita po natin na sa pagtutulungan, kaya nating hanapan ng solusyon ang mga problema ng ating mga kababayang OFWs,” said Romualdez who earlier called for more flights to repatriate the distressed OFWs

Defensor vowed to work hard in ensuring that distressed and stranded OFWs are repatriated to the Philippines immediately.

“Kinakailangan maiuwi natin yung ating mga kababayan, [lalo] na ‘yung mga bangkay. Kailangan maibalik natin sila sa kanilang pamilya,” Defensor said who got an assurance from Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines (CAAP) to accommodate more flights for the repatriation of OFWs.

CAYETANO HONORS OFWS

Cayetano credited the huge sacrifices of OFWs to keep the economy afloat, adding now is the ripe time to show more compassion to the troubled OFWs.

“Ngayon na may krisis, yes overwhelming, lahat po apektado, but it’s time na ipakita natin sa OFWs na ‘yong sakripisyo nila ay pinahahalagahan natin,” Cayetano told the hearing. “Sa mga kababayan na OFWs, saksi kami sa dusa na tiniis n’yo diyan araw-araw para sa
ikauunlad ng inyong pamilya at inyong bansa.”

“At the end of the hearing, we would like to see a reintegrated solution, a workable solution,” the Speaker said. “The question is: are we doing enough for our OFWs? Are we doing enough for our country and our communities?”

Cayetano also said “they are holding this hearing on the government’s repatriation program as the House feels it is one aspect of the pandemic response that needs to do better.”

DOLE , DFA ASK FOR ADDITIONAL FUNDS

Romualdez was responding to Labor Sec. Silvestre “Bebot” Bello III who relayed to the Defensor panel his intention to seek additional funds for the department to continue repatriating OFWs.

“Maybe in the next few days, we will be requesting for additional funding para matugunan natin ang pangangailangan ng ating mga kababayan,” Bello said during the hearing.

Foreign Affairs Undersecretary Sarah Lou Arriola said “if we have enough funding support, we can ask our embassies to give relief pending repatriation.”

“The bigger problem is that we have a very high utilization rate. If we continue repatriating aggressively… by the end of August or mid-August, we will not have funds for repatriation anymore,” added Arriola.

Bello also expressed doubts that some OFWs in Saudi Arabia have reportedly resorted to  scavenging for food from the garbage just to survive.

“Naniniwala ba kayo na ang Pilipino, isang marangal at may dangal na tao ay kakain ng basura?” Bello asked.

“Hindi po ako naniniwala na may Pilipino na kakain ng basura. Hindi ko po alam kung mayroon na kayong nakitang Pilipino na kumakain ng basura,” Bello stressed in response to Bulacan Rep. Jonathan Sy-Alvarado who asked about the true status of OFWs in Saudi Arabia.

He also downplayed news reports that OFWs abroad have also been forced to sell blood to survive the pandemic.

“This is personal experience, I have to be truthful to you. Alam n’yo ang mga Filipino kasi, sa kagustuhan nila makapagpadala ng pera sa kanilang maybahay dito sa Pilipinas, they go for extra money and one of them is selling their blood,” Bello narrated.

“And that does not happen during, etong pandemic your Honor. The truth, that is happening [kahit walang pandemya]. Even in the Philippines, it happens na may nagbebenta ng dugo para magkaroon ng extra money,” Bello pointed out.

NOT ALL DISPLACED OFWS WANT TO RETURN HOME

Bello said there are 8,726,466 OFWs in various parts of the world that include 3,387,905 documented, 1,553,373 undocumented and 3,785,188, permanent migrants.

Of these numbers, Bello said only 346,554 are currently displaced by COVID-19.

“Dito sa 346,554 na displaced sa COVID, sa maniwala kayo sa hindi, 188,952 signified their intention to remain on-site. Sa makatuwid, ayaw nilang umuwi, ayaw nilang magparepatriate,” said Bello, bringing to only 85,334 the real number of stranded OFWs and 18,000 of them are set for immediate repatriation by the government as soon as possible.

DFA WORKING HARD TO REPATRIATE STRANDED OFWS

Arriola apologized to distressed OFWS, but assured that the DFA upon instruction from the President and despite limitations of its resources has been working very hard to bring them back to the Philippines.

“Humihingi po kami ng paumanhin kasi alam po namin na galit na po sila. Naiintindihan po namin. Gusto po talaga namin silang iuwi kaya lang po may limitations,” said Arriola.

“We have brought home more than 56,000 OFWs. We’re making sure that it’s going to be very fast because the mental health issues of our seafarers, it’s at stake,” Arriola stressed, adding that that there were instances that some OFWS would commit suicide in the cruise ship out of depression.

“We are planning to bring home, if we are allowed by CAAP, 37,366 OFWs in the next 3-4 weeks. The DFA stands ready to bring home as many OFWs as possible, but we have to follow also the regulations,” the DFA official said.

“We understand it’s a small number compared to the 88,000 but we also wish to inform the committee that our problem with Saudi Arabia [is]
because the size. The province of Riyadh is bigger than the PH,” she said. “We consider the number of Saudi Arabia as staggering. [It] is [at] 88,000 distressed OFWs. We have already brought home 6,342.”

DEPARTMENT OF OVERSEAS AND FOREIGN EMPLOYMENT SHOULD BE PASSED INTO LAW

Deputy Speaker LRay Villafuerte, a lead author of the House-approved consolidated bill creating the Department of Filipinos Overseas and Foreign Employment (DFO), has called on “the Senate to pass as soon as the Congress reopens in July its own version of the DFO that would take full charge of advancing the interests of OFWs in the long haul and providing immediate relief to distressed migrant workers at this critical time when the Covid-19-induced global slump has put them out of work.”

And in the absence of the DFO to take care of distressed OFWs, Villafuerte appealed to Malacañang to appoint an interim overseer to take charge of the repatriation efforts and provision of livelihood opportunities in the country for migrant Filipinos who have lost their overseas jobs temporarily or for good as a result of the unprecedented pandemic.

“I appeal to Malacañang to appoint an interim take-charge guy to handle the repatriation of, and provision of local jobs and livelihood
opportunities for, our OFWs who have been forced to return home because of the economic fallout from the global health emergency—in the same way that President Duterte named Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu as go-to guy in the government’s anti-Covid efforts in Cebu and, before that, in the six-month rehabilitation program for Boracay Island,” said Villafuerte.