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Returning ‘heroes’: Filipino migrant workers met with a devastated economy

Alongside immediate repatriation pressures, the Philippine government is grappling with the daunting challenge of supporting millions of newly unemployed Filipinos and migrant families dependent on lost remittances. The latest National Migration Survey reports that approximately 12% of Filipino households have a member who is or has been an OFW. Therefore, such families will be the hardest hit financially by the loss of income, which may be enough to pull families below the poverty line. The pandemic has caused the unemployment rate to spike to 17.7%, more than triple the rate recorded in 2019.

To buffer the economic impact, the government initially allocated US$52 million for displaced OFWs, including a one-time emergency cash aid of US$200 for each worker displaced by the pandemic under the Abot Kamay ang Pagtulong programme. The Overseas Workers Welfare Administration also launched its project EASE, which provides educational assistance worth US$8 million for college-level dependents of OFWs affected by COVID-19. In August, the government signed into law the Bayanihan to Recover as One Act, providing a recovery package worth US$3.5 billion. Of this, US$17 million is for the repatriation of OFWs, medical assistance, and shipment of remains for those who die of COVID-19.

While such cash assistance is helpful as a stop-gap measure, the government’s COVID-19 recovery package for OFWs is insufficient to contain the socio-economic impact of the crisis long-term. Similarly, job creation schemes such as the Development Outreach for Labor, Livelihood and Advancement of Resources programme offering 70,000 jobs to repatriated OFWs and the Build, Build, Build programme creating jobs in the construction sector, fail to meet the overwhelming demand of unemployed Filipinos across the country.

The time for the government to scale-up and strengthen its preexisting economic and social reintegration programmes is long overdue. Providing OFWs with sustainable and appropriate local employment opportunities will require a government mechanism to systematically collect detailed data on returnees. Such data will help to inform strategies and formulate programmes that match the different circumstances, individual needs and skillsets of returnees.

It is crucial that government agencies share this data at the national level, along with local government units and civil society organisations to develop a coordinated action plan. The use of digital technology, including social media platforms, to communicate with and disseminate information to repatriated migrant workers is also proving key in extending the government’s reach.

The Philippines’ return and reintegration policies have long been the weakest component of its labour migration governance, which stems in large part from the state’s greater focus on institutionalizing a comprehensive system of labour export. The pandemic has exposed deep-seated cracks in its export-based and remittance-dependent economy. The Philippine government is finally being forced to reevaluate its policy agenda and confront neglected reforms, by investing in the creation of decent local jobs and developing reintegration programmes that tailor to the needs of returning Filipino migrant workers.

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