In Saudi, death and dumpster ‘theatrics’
Reports on overseas Filipino workers in Saudi Arabia, one as distressing as the other and concerning both the living and the dead, reflect the continuing misery brought by COVID-19 and the Philippine government’s inability to cushion its effects on the “modern-day heroes.”
One report has to do with the plight of certain OFWs in Riyadh driven by destitution to foraging for food to eat. Their condition was captured in a video aired on TV showing them scouring a dumpster—a recording of a hunting-and-gathering venture for a meal and apparently intended as a cry for help.
It’s a sorry spectacle in that bastion of prosperity in the Middle East, a surreal visual echo of scenes of poverty in the Philippines’ urban jungles, but Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III has refused to call it what it is. Late last month at the inquiry of the House of Representatives’ committee on public accounts into how the government is assisting OFWs displaced by the global pandemic, he launched into an odd paean of the Filipino as dignified and honorable (“marangal at may dangal”)—and incapable of eating garbage. He told the lawmakers that the OFWs seen digging into a dumpster were looking for fruit rejects, those that did not pass the standards of grocery stores: “Iyon ang pinag-aagawan ng mga kasamahan natin. ‘Di po ito basura.”
In the course of declaring that the distressed OFWs were compelled to consume, not garbage, but fruit rejects, Bello made light of their state: that they had not been paid for months because their employer had ceased operations, that the Philippine Embassy had not done enough to ease their need (else why would these dignified and honorable Filipinos even think of raiding a dumpster?), and that they were dying, as it were, to get home but could not return to the motherland.
Earlier in a tweet, Philippine Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Adnan Alonto said “assistance” had in fact been given to the OFWs. “Some of our people… have resorted to theatrics to catch attention,” he said, in effect pronouncing what was caught on video as mere artifice aimed at wangling priority from Philippine authorities. (Official displeasure was subsequently conveyed to the OFWs via a reprimand from the Philippine Overseas Labor Office, according to GMA News.)
Yet at the House inquiry, Alonto corroborated Bello’s testimony on the OFWs’ digging for supermarket rejects in a dumpster, claiming that Filipinos were well-known for making do with vegetables less than farm-fresh: “Alam ninyo naman po ang mga kababayan natin, basta maganda pa itsura ng gulay, kinukuha nila eh.” He also said one of the OFWs in question had in fact received assistance from the Department of Labor and Employment to the tune of 700 Saudi riyals, or P9,100, suggesting that the latter had no cause to complain.
Another reported act of desperation by OFWs in Saudi Arabia—that they had resorted to selling their blood to buy food—was blithely dismissed in a briefing last week by the labor secretary. He said the sale of blood earned OFWs extra money for drinking and going out on the town: “Para sa mga lakad nila, gusto nilang mag-inuman, ganun.”
What does one make of these incredibly callous statements about the modern-day heroes who by their toil contributed to remittances to the Philippines amounting to $33.5 billion in 2019, but that these are intended to mask their government’s puny efforts at safeguarding their welfare? At least 23,000 Filipinos in Saudi Arabia asked to be repatriated but only 2,000 have made it home since May, per the Philippine Embassy in Riyadh. Meanwhile, the OFWs seeking salvation in a dumpster “are all now without money, always hungry, and terrified of getting sick,” The Straits Times said.
The other distressing report on OFWs in the kingdom involves the startling fact that hundreds had died there and their remains await interment. On June 21, Bello announced that the Saudi government had given Philippine authorities 72 hours “to bring home our dead.” Those 72 hours came and went, as did the subsequent set target of July 4. Last heard, the DOLE said the grim repatriation would push through this week, the delays having been caused by “pending release of documentary requirements, and our common desire to strictly adhere to health protocols in transporting [the remains].”
Of the 282 dead, 50 were COVID-19 patients; the others were said to have died of “natural causes.” The causes are unknown, the circumstances unclear.
To be stranded in a foreign land, to die away from their loved ones’ embrace… Heroes do not deserve such misfortunes.
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