For Filipino workers in Oman, around the world, losing job is cutting crucial lifeline

MUSCAT: She can barely contain her tears when the food package was handed to her.

“Thank you so much. This is too embarrassing but after losing my job, there was no else I can turn to,” she said to the social worker.

Madeline, not her real name, reached out to the Philippine Embassy in Muscat and its affiliated social club for help as whatever savings she has left has all dried up. Her employer has stopped giving her salary since the pandemic has struck.

There are days that she worries how to get by to the next day and the little box containing rice, water, and other basic necessities can at least help her survive another week.

Madeline’s case is similar to dozens of cases all over Oman. In Sifah, entrepreneur Cecilia Pitre has been handing out some of her unused groceries to a group of Filipinos who also lost their jobs.

“Their situation is really difficult. I visit them at least once a week. There’s about six or seven of them who lost their jobs all at once,” she said.

In a series of special repatriation flights, around 1000 displaced Filipinos were already sent home and thousands of others are just waiting for the next available flights.

The plight of Filipinos in Oman resonates with other nationalities from India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan and the desperation is felt globally as more and more overseas Filipino workers are losing their jobs and being sent home.

GLOBAL TREND

Carlos Salvador Jr was all set to go to Spain for a six-month stint aboard a container ship when the Philippines imposed its strict lockdown in March, hoping to contain the novel coronavirus.

“I was broke. Things were not easy for me and my family. I badly needed to go back to work at that time so I was looking forward to that trip,” said sailor Carlos Salvador Jr.

Like millions of other migrant workers who leave the Philippines to work abroad and send their earnings back to a myriad of dependents, a whole family saw its lifeline cut.

Since then, Salvador – who used to send about $2,000 a month home for two children and sick father – has been stuck in his home: a coastal village in central Philippines, with zero work.

“My world stopped spinning,” Salvador, 33, who has been a sailor for nine years, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from the Iloilo province.

His cousin, a deck officer on another ship, was similarly caught up in the lockdown and grounded.

“I lost my job, they have to look somewhere else for a crew replacement,” said Salvador.

Millions of overseas Filipino workers like Salvador are breadwinners who regularly send money home, in remittances that account for nearly 10% of the country’s gross domestic product.

But hundreds of thousands were likely to lose their jobs this year, cutting an important lifeline for many poor families.

REMITTANCES

About 10 million Filipinos work or live overseas, official figures show, spread across North America, Europe, the Middle East and parts of Asia such as Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong.

Remittances by overseas Filipino workers reached a record high of $33.5 billion last year, according to the central bank.

But as global coronavirus cases keep climbing, up to 400,000 Filipino overseas workers were projected to lose their jobs or take a pay cut this year, according to the Ateneo Center for Economic Research and Development, a local think-tank.

“This year’s projected remittance totals may be the steepest in Philippine, 45-year migration history,” said Jeremaiah Opiniano, an expert on remittances at the think tank.

“The Philippines needs these remittances more than ever. They have proven to be an added boost to the positive Philippine economic story the past decade, and have helped the country elude negative impacts of financial crises,” he added.

The Philippine central bank has said remittances, a key driver of consumption, will drop 5% this year on the 2019 total, after chalking up a 3% drop in the first four months of 2020.

Globally, the World Bank said remittances worldwide are set to fall by about 20% – or $142 billion – this year, worse than in the 2009 financial crisis.

ONE IN NINE HIT

Such a loss would cut a crucial lifeline to many families, as one in nine people globally benefitted from international remittances in 2019, according to the United Nations.

Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, who headed the country’s national task force on the coronavirus response, said more than 92,000 overseas workers had been repatriated after losing their jobs abroad, most of them seafarers.

Another 200,000 Filipino workers are stranded in dozens of countries and on merchant ships waiting to get home.

“We have been sending them back to their home provinces after spending some days in quarantine,” Lorenzana said.

“We wanted to make sure they are virus-free. We have also provided them a cash assistance of $200 to help them start anew,” the official told an online seminar.

As the government gradually re-opens the economy, it has started to allow overseas workers, mostly seafarers aboard merchant vessels, to travel again.

It has also eased a ban on nurses and health workers to go overseas, allowing those with existing contracts to go.

CASH AID

Back in his village in Iloilo, Salvador has started fishing for income, besides using his meagre savings and the $200 in aid he got from the government after losing his job.

“It’s not enough but it’s better than having none,” he said.

Salvador is luckier than many.

He has found a job on a new container ship and is set to leave by the end of July for a six-month job in the Caribbean.

Marden Domingo and his fiancee Jessica Rai Paulo, who both worked on a cruise ship pre-pandemic, must wait longer as falling demand and border closures hit cruise liners.

In Pangasinan province, north of Manila, the couple has pooled their government aid and opened a food delivery service, making noodle dishes they learned on the cruise ships.

But like Salvador, they wanted to travel and earn more.

“We’re just starting our small business, we’re just earning enough,” said Paulo, who served food on cruises for two years. — with reports from Thomson Reuters Foundation