Filipino jobs on the line
Labor officials and a Cabinet secretary have tried to put a good face to it.
It’s “too early” to predict job losses for overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) even in countries hardest hit by the coronavirus (COVID-19), according to Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) chief Hans Leo Cacdac.
“So far, there have been no negative signals that (these countries) are laying off or no longer hiring OFWs,” he said. There are 2.3 million Filipinos working abroad as of September 2018—many of them in badly hit countries such as Japan, South Korea, Italy, and the Middle East.
Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles, meanwhile, said Filipino workers were expected to remit P1.74 trillion or $34.2 billion to their families this year despite the threat of COVID-19, exceeding the all-time-high 2019 remittances of $33.46 billion.
But accounts from OFWs themselves tell a more complicated reality. Being migrant workers, they are particularly vulnerable when their host countries suffer an economic downturn, such as from curtailed trade and travel because of the virus outbreak. They become last priority in the distribution of limited resources, including jobs and health care.
In Vietnam, Filipinos in English learning centers have not received their pay since Feb. 3 when classes were suspended to prevent further transmission of the virus. Their employers say that parents have asked for reimbursement of their children’s tuition, especially since class suspension has been extended till end of March.
In Hong Kong, home to some 400,000 foreign domestic workers, mostly from the Philippines and Indonesia, OFWs are finding themselves suddenly jobless, with employers telling them they were moving from the city, having lost their jobs because of a shrinking economy battered by the twin whammies of the Hong Kong protests and the coronavirus scare.
Reports indicate that some 40 Filipino domestic workers have been displaced as of March 3. A typical scenario, as reported in the South China Morning Post, is that of Jennifer, who was told to pack her bags and leave when she got back to her employer’s place after hearing Mass on her rest day.
Finding another job isn’t easy in this former British colony, which has seen two deaths from more than 90 coronavirus cases — including two Filipino domestic workers. But going home seems like a dire option, too, with jobs just as hard to come by in the Philippines.
Several big corporations have recently announced they were pulling out of the country, swelling even more the number of unemployed workers. The labor group Defend Jobs Philippines noted that, so far, 2,087 workers have already been terminated in the last two months: 700 by Nokia, another 700 by Wells Fargo, 387 by Honda, and 300 by Philippine Airlines.
The figure is daunting when added to the 2.1 million jobless Filipinos, as indicated by a survey in December 2019 by the Social Weather Stations — and those numbers may still swell. The National Food Authority Employees Association has expressed apprehension that the agency’s downsizing would render jobless at least 1,134 workers.
Meanwhile, the proposed P9.39-billion cut in the 2020 budget of the Department of Health (DOH) could lead to job losses among some 7,000 public health nurses next year, warned Senate President Pro Tempore Ralph Recto. The cut would also affect dentists and medical technologists; all in all, the DOH could potentially lose around 10,921 health personnel currently employed in 2020, he said.
Given this lean prospect, Defend Jobs has challenged the government to do more than just monitor and mediate the settlement and separation pay for affected workers.
How prepared is the government to deal with OFWs driven home by the outbreak, for example?
The labor department said it was coordinating with the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority to provide training to displaced workers, though this would be mostly vocational skills. Laid-off workers can also apply for unemployment insurance, said Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III, citing the requirements needed to avail of the involuntary separation benefit of the Social Security System.
A package of soft loans, investment options, training on other skill sets as well as seminars on financial literacy, both from government and the private sector, to help returning OFWs and retrenched local workers find firm footing in the lean days ahead would also be a good start.
But have such contingency programs been drawn up — indeed, is the government’s hand firmly in place — to prepare for the displacement of Filipino workers facing tough headwinds both here and abroad?
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