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Stranded in one's own country: Media highlight plight of Filipino migrant workers | CMFR

Stranded in one’s own country: Media highlight plight of Filipino migrant workers

Screengrab from Rappler.


THE COUNTRY’S lack of livelihood opportunities has long compelled Filipinos to seek better paying jobs abroad.  For the same reason, Filipinos have also moved from the provinces to the urban centers of the country.

The long lockdown period has closed down many jobs, causing workers to be stranded in various cities without wages, leaving them homeless and bankrupt. Filipino workers abroad were similarly displaced as the pandemic stalled economies around the world.

OFWs and locally-stranded individuals (LSI) shared similar fates. The news captured the hardship of those who could not go home. But not too many journalists probed into how and why the plight of these migrants has slipped the attention of the IATF-EID.

Media attention prompted some government agencies to action and reports highlighted these efforts. But only a few journalists went beyond documenting the workers’ ordeals to pinpoint what failure had caused the sad lapse in the administration’s response to a specific critical need arising from the pandemic.

CMFR monitored the coverage of three Manila-based broadsheets (Philippine Daily Inquirer, Philippine Star, Manila Bulletin), four primetime newscasts (ABS-CBN’s TV Patrol, GMA-7’s 24 Oras, CNN Philippines’ News Night, TV5’s One Balita Pilipinas), and selected online news sites from May 25 to June 16.

Overstaying OFWs

The government’s repatriation program for OFWs included arranging special flights to bring them home from various foreign airports, as well as setting them up in designated quarantine facilities for the mandatory 14 days before being allowed to go home. This program began sometime in March.

Media described how some of them were left in quarantine well beyond the mandated two-week period, due to delays in their test results, which unfortunately some of them did not know about.

On May 25, President Duterte gave an ultimatum to DOLE, OWWA and DOH to send the stranded OFWs home within seven days. News coverage followed up the efforts of several departments to ferry the OFWs on buses, ships or sweeper flights. The National Task Force against COVID-19, which is in charge of implementing the National Action Plan, assured them of shorter waiting time— five days— for swab test results, which some newly-repatriated OFWs attested to.

But TV reports showed that some OFWs were not as lucky as others. Some were forced to stay put in designated facilities without any advice about what to expect. Snafus included OFWs bound for the Visayas and Mindanao who were taken to bus terminals instead of the airport. Waiting times at the airport added to the burden of these OFWs, as they languished there for hours or days without receiving food or being accommodated in designated areas for sleeping.

LSIs waiting for rides          

The situation has been worse for LSIs, those who have been stuck in Metro Manila for months since the implementation of ECQ on March 15 which suspended all regular public transportation; and remains restricted even with the shift to GCQ on June 1.

The media reported the dire situation of stranded passengers waiting outside NAIA. Some of them had tickets and travel papers, but complained that their flights kept getting cancelled, forcing them to rebook indefinitely. Others had no bookings at all, claiming they were advised to wait for the chance for free flights. Most of those the media interviewed were from Mindanao, and were caught in Manila by the lockdown while following up on their job applications abroad, and awaiting the processing of papers by recruiting agencies.

Journalists went to the representatives of airlines, who said they were seeking clearance first from the concerned LGUs. OWWA told the media the LSIs are not covered by their programs, and applying OFWs should be accounted for by their recruiting agencies. Airport officials told media they advised passengers not to proceed to NAIA unless their flights had been confirmed. Obviously, these reactions while observing their agencies’ limited responsibilities reflected an abysmal lack of concern for these hapless people.

The government did not have any agency to attend to LSIs. LSI was not a listed category before the lockdown.  The lockdown created their terrible situation. They were forced to wait under trees, to camp in nearby vacant lots, and seek shelter under the NAIA expressway.

Reports featured stranded individuals complaining about the lack of proper sanitation facilities and basic provisions, as they were not assigned to any office and thus had no one they could ask to come to their aid.  Only after media reported their situation did the DOTR transfer them to nearby Villamor Airbase for temporary shelter on June 11, still without the certainty of their ever getting home.

Once again, the apparent lack of coordination and communication among different agencies prevented the search for some solution or measure of relief. This failure has characterized the entire government strategy to address the pandemic. No one seemed interested in getting into the details, from testing and contact tracing, the failure to process quarantine procedures and transportation needs.

On the issue of LSIs, most of the media did not attempt to identify the missing link which could have triggered some quick assistance.

Only TV Patrol and Inquirer recalled that on May 29, more than two months after the ECQ implementation, DOTR announced that domestic flights could resume between GCQ areas, prompting airlines to open ticket sales. But the IATF later told the Civil Aeronautics Board that they had not yet approved travel routes for the first week of June. The Inquirer report added, “One of the key problems was aligning national government rules with those of the LGUs,” as local governments were also allowed to reject incoming flights.

Rappler published an earlier report pinpointing the problems confronting LSIs. On May 29, Rambo Talabong reported that unlike for OFWs, the government does not even have an estimated number of LSIs. Based on the sources he interviewed, LSIs were forced to form Facebook groups to help them identify what programs they could turn to to  help them return home. The “Balik Probinsya” program of Senator Bong Go misled their expectations, as this was set up only for those who were looking for permanent resettlement in the provinces.

The tragedy of Michelle Silvertino dramatized the government’s lack of attention to an obvious impact of the sudden lockdown; slipping into a black hole in the mindless muddle of official ineptitude.

Silvertino died on a footbridge in Pasay City on June 5 while waiting for the bus to take her home to Camarines Sur. Reports said she applied to work as an OFW, but failed her medical exam. She opted to work as a domestic helper in Antipolo City instead.

In the June 11 edition of 24 Oras, anchor Mel Tiangco remarked Tila nagsigising ang gobyerno sa sinapit ni Michelle Silvertino,” (It seems that government was awakened by the tragedy of . . .) to introduce a report that the government decided to suspend “Balik Probinsya” to give way to the “Hatid Probinsya” program; the latter to ferry LSIs to their home provinces.

With the chaos in the airports, the story was awaiting a deeper inquiry. But the media, fixated on government’s lead, following official announcements and statements, found it difficult to find Silvertino early enough to save her life.

Reporters did well to call attention to the LSIs, who typify so many Filipinos whose hopes and dreams are pinned abroad. To be stranded, running out of already scarce funds and having no one to help them, they did not have the chance to approach any government office and ask for help. Neither did they think of asking for help from the media soon enough.

Perhaps, the media should try another approach in reporting the pandemic, which is to stop concentrating all their time on government briefings. Perhaps, they will find the stories that really matter by being closer to those affected most by the impact of COVID-19.