By ALEX SUAREZ
INDANG, Cavite — Hopeful overseas Filipino workers bound for Hong Kong are asking the government for help as the repeated travel bans and flight cancellations have left them stranded in Metro Manila and putting their work abroad at risk as well.
“There are so many expenses, and we are buried deep in loans. We borrowed money when we left for Manila and we cannot return because our families are suffering and cannot pay for the money lent to us. But we can hardly cover our basic needs, from food to a place to stay,” Azenith Abrio, one of the stranded domestic workers, said in a forum organized by Migrante International.
Abrio, who is from Bukidnon, is currently staying at a rented apartment in Manila.
According to news reports, at least 30,000 Hongkong workers were stranded in Manila earlier this year. They fear losing their work in their host countries as they await their flights. Some were forced to return to their provinces.
Hong Kong, too, had its own share of banning flights from countries like the Philippines back in April. This affected over 1,300 Filipino workers.
“OFWs mortgage their properties, they even borrow money from lending companies with high interest. These workers are now desperate. They are not hopeful that the Philippine government will support them as they, at this point in time, were not provided financial assistance and accommodation,” said Dolores Balladares of Migrante International and chair of United Filipinos in Hong Kong.
While stranded in Manila, Abrio said that she had to skip meals to live for another day. They received no financial assistance and resorted to lining up in community pantries around Manila to get by.
Community pantries were put up across Metro Manila and several provinces in an effort to help those affected by the pandemic. It began as a humble initiative of activist Patricia Non in Quezon City and has since sprouted in many parts of the country amid very little help that the people are getting from the government.
“The pantries here in Manila really helped us a lot. We head to wherever there is a queue to get what we need. We are asking OWWA (Overseas Workers Welfare Administration) or even our own agency to help us and provide us shelter because of the expenses. It has been very stressful,” she said.
Other hopeful OFWs ended up depleting their remaining money while stranded in Manila, and were forced to return to their provinces empty-handed.
Maria Gonzales, 35, said her dream is to build their own home and send her two children to school. Late in 2019, she left Cagayan Valley for a chance to work in Hongkong as a domestic helper.
The dream turned into a nightmare when after finishing all her requirements, COVID-19 entered the scene. Her contract was cancelled. She attempted to look for other employers, and each time she would process her requirements as needed, including medical examinations that she had to spend for. At one time, she had to rebook her flight four times.
Still, she was not able to leave. She also run out of money and so with what was left, she bought a ticket home.
“During that time, I felt really down and I started to lose hope. I told my agent to stop looking for an employer because I already spent a huge fortune. I told her that maybe it’s really not for me, that I don’t want to continue this for now,” said Gonzales, who remains without a job and buried in debt.
Despite their predicaments, they have not received financial assistance from the Philippine government.
In May 2021, the Hong Kong government announced a plan to require all domestic workers, mostly Filipinos, to be vaccinated against COVID-19. This was later scrapped after being denounced as discriminatory, considering that other foreigners have not been required to do so.
Workers who received their full vaccination in Hong Kong can return starting Aug. 9. Hong Kong residents, too, can return if they are willing to undergo health protocols. However, Migrante International said that newly-hired and returning domestic workers who were vaccinated in their home countries, even if they are willing to undergo health protocols, are not allowed to enter Hong Kong.
“I am begging the HK government to lift the travel ban so we can work. I am also fully vaccinated, and already with complete documents. I am the breadwinner of my family,” said another stranded, newly-hired domestic worker, Maricar Tabarez, 32, adding that she is willing to go through the necessary health protocol.
In response to this, an internationally-recognized vaccination certificate dubbed as “Yellow Card” has been proposed for OFWs bound to Hong Kong but how this will be carried out and who will shoulder the expenses remain unclear.
“Even our government agencies continue to collect mandatory fees as part of their processing and employment contracts, and this is a big burden for our migrant workers who are already suffering from loss of livelihood,” said Migrante International Chairperson Joana Concepcion. (JJE, RTS)