OF TREES AND FOREST
By FORMER SENATE PRESIDENT MANNY VILLAR
Former Senate President
As the nation grapples with the coronavirus pandemic, let us not forget to help and protect Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs)—those who are returning home and those who are still working abroad. As my good friend Senator Ralph Recto said, “they deserve a red carpet treatment.”
According to recent data, more than 55,000 OFWs have returned to the Philippines with more than 43,000 released from the mandated quarantine to ensure that they do not carry, and will not spread, the deadly virus. Of this number, 1,376 has so far tested positive with COVID-19.
On the other hand, 6,140 overseas workers have been reported to be infected with the coronavirus, with deaths number to 495. The data from the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) also tells us that 2,851 Filipinos have recovered from the virus while 2,794 are ongoing treatment.
For decades, we have established ourselves as the prime exporter of labor. This has fueled economic growth and helped us mitigate some economic crisis that came our way. In 2019, our OFWs sent an estimated US$30 billion home which is more than 7 percent of our Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
Its advantages has turned to a liability as the coronavirus hit countries around the world. With so many Filipinos scattered worldwide, some are bound to be infected, especially in many of the hard-hit countries like Italy and the US. Our consular offices need to do their job in order to protect OFWs who have contracted the virus. They should coordinate with the host country to ensure that our OFWs are receiving proper care and treatment.
As the coronavirus forced many countries to impose lockdowns that shackled their economies, many of our OFWs lost their jobs and have returned home. With so many OFWs returning, the Philippines need to use all available resources to provide testing and isolating facilities so that our returning OFWs receive the best care possible.
Malacañang has already issued a statement that they are giving our OFWs the “VIP treatment” while in quarantine. Government pays for the hotels where they are quarantined as well as transportation and the essentials they need.
While there have been many complaints of OFWs staying in quarantine facilities way longer than the period of time required, I am glad government has stepped up its game in terms of ensuring that both our OFWs and the community they are returning to will be safe. While at this, I call upon local government units to protect OFWs returning to their province. There have been reports of OFWs being ostracized and discriminated against by local communities. Let us not lose our compassion even as we vigilantly guard against the spread of the virus.
On a macro level, government needs to have a plan to address surging unemployment. The National Statistics Office reported that the country’s unemployment rate climbed to a record 17.7 per cent during the lockdown, the first time it reached double digits since 2005. This rate translates to more than 7 million Filipinos without work and with no ability to feed their family.
The record jump is in no doubt the result of the quarantine measures that closed many businesses in March and April. With government easing some of these restrictions, many workers have returned to work. But some establishments have already announced that they are closing permanently. This translates to more unemployment. And with OFWs losing their jobs abroad, we should expect our unemployment to worsen.
We need to be prepared to give them jobs and livelihood. One idea is to retrain them in order to take advantage of the new economic opportunities that the lockdown has created. Many have gone to online selling in order to survive. Some have become riders and delivery personnel as these services surge with people mostly staying at home.
The bottomline is this: we need a plan to reintegrate and retool our OFWs.