COVID-19 Op-ed

Where do We Go from Here? An Unsettling Battle for Filipino Migrants in Cambodia and Vietnam amid Covid-19

Written by admin

Eunice Barbara C.
NovioVongchavalitkul University, Nakhon
Ratchasima, Thailand
Correspondent: US and
Canada Bureau;

Roughly nine weeks into the Covid-19 pandemic in Southeast
Asia, we have already seen the debilitating effects of Covid-19 on our
livelihood and enjoyment of rights and freedoms. This crisis compelled
governments, civil society organisations, and concerned individuals to
alleviate the plight of exhausted health systems and of vulnerable citizens.
However, we have also received information about new waves of infections
involving migrants in immigration detention centers and dormitories, many of
whom could not access public health services and safety nets carried out by
their home and host countries (Satrusayang, 25 April, 2020). Such realities
also place Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) in a rather unsettling, greatly insecure
Current State of Host Countries
Cambodia and
Vietnam have been accommodating Filipinos within their respective labour
forces. As of 2019, an estimated 6,773 Filipinos are working in
entertainment, businesses, development and education sectors in Camboida.
Around 80% are based in Phnom Penh, the capital city (Business Mirror, 16
September 2019).  In Vietnam, the Philippine Embassy reported that in
2013, around 5,000 Filipinos are found working as educators, and in the
tourism and hospitality industries (Bohane, Novio, 23 April 2020a). These
statistics obviously exclude undocumented OFWs.Both countries, as of date,
have reported relatively lower numbers of cases compared to their neighbors
in Southeast Asia. As of 25 April 2020, Cambodia reported 122 cases, while
Vietnam stands at 270. None have reported any deaths from Covid-19. Such low
numbers may be attributed to policies their respective
governments are undertaking to mitigate the spread of the virus. On March 15,
Vietnam shut its borders with Cambodia (Bangkok Post, 19 March 2020). The
following day, Cambodia followed suit. Both countries also pursued an indefinite
closure of non-essential business establishments, schools, and most public
places. This resulted in the immediate unemployment and displacement of
thousands of local and foreign workers, particularly foreign nationals.Most
OFWs have already succumbed to the ‘no work, no pay policy’ of both
countries. In Vietnam, many Filipinos have already been out of work as early
as February, when cases started increasing. Distressed Filipino workers could
no longer afford to pay rents and buy food for the next month. Also, majority
of Filipinos do not have access to health care in case they are infected with
the virus. Although Vietnam has better health care services compared to
Cambodia, migrant workers may not avail treatment if they are uninsured or
irregularly working in the country. The high cost of hospitalization could
drain their limited savings.Home Country
The Migrant Workers and Overseas
Filipinos Act of 1995 (RA 8042) stipulates that workers are to be deployed to
countries recognizing the rights of the migrant workers as well as in
countries with existing bilateral agreements. It also mandates the POEA to
protect the rights of the migrant workers. As a labour-sending country, the
Philippines requires its nationals to register at the Philippine Overseas
Employment Administration (POEA) and to pay membership to Overseas Worker
Welfare Administration (OWWA) (POEA, 1982, 2002).There are strategic
partnerships, agreements and action plan between Vietnam and Philippines
since the end of the Cold War but these only cover trade and defense (Vietnam
News, 19 November 2015; DFA, 12 April 2016). Between Cambodia and the
Philippines, major agreements since 1995 cover trade relations, tourism and
health development cooperation and an MOU Concerning the Cooperation in the
Field of Labour signed in 2016 (Philippine Embassy, Phonm
Pehn). Due to the absence of bilateral
labor agreements or Memorandum of Understanding on the protection of the
rights of OFWs in these countries, risks are much higher when the conditions
go downhill. Furthermore, there are no designated labour attaches or POLO
(Philippine Overseas Labor Office) to settle work-related disputes that may
arise between the OFWs and their employers. POLO is the operating arm of the
Department of Labor and Employment’s (DOLE) ( Philippine
Embassy in Cambodia initiated an information campaign about Covid-19, even
before it was declared a pandemic. In an interview with Myca Magnolia M.
Fischer, Chargé d’Affaires, the Philippine Embassy in Phnom Penh had issued
advisories to Filipinos related to the situation in Cambodia. They also
provided information from from WHO, Department of Health (DOH), and
Cambodia’s Ministry of Health (Novio, 10 April 2020). In Vietnam, the
Philippine Embassy established pick-up centers for the relief packages to be
delivered to the registered OFWs. Repatriation was also provided (Bohane,
Novio, 23 April 2020b)On 11 April 2020, the Philippine government launched
the DOLE-Akap Cash Assistance for the  OFW affected by COVID-19. The
one-time cash aid of $200 or roughly PHP 10,000 will be given to OFWs who
qualify for the met requirements set by the agency set. However, OFWs working
countries in the Mekong Region are not being prioritized. This is despite the
provision in the program that includes even the OFWs who are not registered
with the POEA or whose contracts were not processed by POEA or POLO. (DOLE,
2020). Moreover,  since they are considered as OFWs or working abroad,
their families in the Philippines are excluded from the Social Amelioration
Program (SAP) of the Philippine Government (Panti, 6 April 2020). These violate
the RA 8042 which mandates all agencies to “institute the policies
of overseas employment and establish a higher standard of protection and
promotion of the welfare of migrant workers, their families and overseas
Filipinos in distress.”
No Other Choice but to
Distressed Filipinos, who once dreamt of
greener pastures abroad, are left with no choice but to return home, where
any work prospects are bleak, and the Covid-19 situation is much worse. About
310 Filipino migrants from Vietnam (143) and Cambodia (167) arrived in Manila
on 18 April. As of this writing, repatriated OFWs are undergoing a
state-sanctioned 14-day quarantine (GMA, 19 April 2020). However, since the
Enhanced Community Lockdown in Luzon was extended until May 15, those heading
to the provinces may be unable to do so. Ms. Fischer said that there is no
clear re-integration program for repatriated OFWs.Since the1970s, the
Philippines has been exporting its labour force to different countries. OFWs
are reduced to money-making machines that keep the economy afloat, thanks to
the 10.22 % contribution to the Gross Domestic Product of the 2.2 million
OFWs around the world (The Global Economy, 2018).Perhaps, the Philippines is
the only country which has enacted laws for the protection of the migrant
workers since 1982 with the creation of POEA and OWWA, and RA 8042. It is
also the only country which also requires OFWs to pay various fees to be able
to return home and back to their workplaces. But none protect them from the
neglect in their home country. Instead of giving assistance, the government
requires a lot of paper works for OFWs who wish to integrate back to their
society.The COVID-19 exposed the weakness of the Philippine government when
it comes to the delivery of social services and providing decent employment
opportunities for its people. With its pro-China stance, the government
provides jobs to thousands of offshore gaming online to Chinese nationals in
the Philippines, it already denies the Filipino workers employment. But it is
not only during Duterte’s regime. For decades, Filipinos are conditioned to
become human exports in the guise of better life and opportunities abroad.
This is mainly to address the perennial problem of joblessness in the
country.  Instead of the state’s obligation, the OFWs bear the burden of
providing better life for their families. Yet, the rising cost of living,
expensive education, the deteriorating health care system, and reduced social
services make it almost impossible for an ordinary OFW to make ends meet.
Unless the Philippine government addresses the root cause of poverty which is
systemic corruption in all levels of governance, migration continues. But
with border closures and economic slowdown, the Filipinos are left scrambling
for survival in their host countries or repatriating with their shattered
H and Novio, E.(23 April 2020)COVID-19 takes heavy financial toll on Filipino
migrant workers in Vietnam.,
E. (10 April 2020).Filipinos
get option to stay in Cambodia, which has zero COVID-19 death, or return to
(6 April 2020)IATF: Social amelioration aid not for 4Ps, formal sector
workers, non-indigent elderly.,
C. (25 April 2020) Thailand discovers 53 new coronavirus cases; majority of
cases from migrant detention center prompting fears of Singapore scenario.
Thai Enquirer.

About the author