Overseas Employment Under the New Normal
Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) are often hailed as ‘modern-day heroes’ for their valuable influence on the workforce and social landscape of the Philippines and their host country. But more importantly, OFWs, seen as an economic factor, comprise strong pillars of the Philippine economy through their personal remittances which account for at least 9.7% of Gross Domestic Product.[i] This is not surprising if one considers the latest estimated number of OFWs worldwide of around 2.3 million.[ii]
However, the exponential spread of the novel coronavirus to almost every corner of the globe threatens deployment and the actual work of our modern-day heroes. Unprecedented lockdowns in almost all countries aimed at containing the novel coronavirus would definitely, sooner or later, lead to a global economic recession. And just as in previous economic recessions, termination of workers, apart from schemes currently implemented to keep businesses afloat, is definitely on the table.
The International Labour Organization (ILO) approximates that the pandemic is expected to wipe out 6.7% of working hours globally in the second quarter, affecting about 195 million full-time workers. [iii] The ILO underscored that substantial reductions in employment are foreseen in Arab countries, Europe, and the Asia and the Pacific.[iv] Unfortunately, 77% of OFWs are employed in these very regions — Asian countries, Saudi Arabia, and other Arab countries are the top destinations of OFWs. It is not a question of if but when, and, to what extent will layoffs negatively affect global OFW deployment.
As unemployment numbers rise in other countries, the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) revealed that 89,436 OFWs have been momentarily displaced or placed on a “no work, no pay” scheme due to lockdowns and slowdown of businesses in host countries.[v]
To alleviate their plight, the Philippine Government began implementing voluntary repatriation and provided a one-time cash aid. Repatriation of OFWs is ongoing, bringing home at least 19,466 OFWs, 15,130 of which are sea-based.[vi] As regards the cash assistance, 103,467 of 368,703 who had sought cash aid were listed as beneficiaries to receive Php10,000.00 each.[vii] While the cash aid program provides relief to beneficiaries, it comes as no surprise to be unsustainable since, by comparison, a family of five (5) requires at least Php10,481.00 on average to meet basic food and non-food needs every month, according to the Philippine Statistics Authority.[viii]
Undoubtedly, the current pandemic is causing a great deal of uncertainty among OFWs. For instance, it is no guarantee that those who are repatriated can in fact return to their host country, while those who are awaiting deployment abroad could proceed but do face strict travel restrictions — or worse, the possibility of permanent closure of businesses of their employers abroad. The same job insecurity may also torment OFWs who, by the nature of their employment, are not easily temporarily displaced — such as domestic workers and home-based nurses — but may still face termination just the same especially if their employers’ main businesses are grappling with serious financial losses.
The likelihood of permanent closure of businesses or layoff to downsize the business is indeed a cause for concern for land-based OFWs. At one end of the spectrum, sea-based OFWs, especially those in the tourism and travel industries, have begun reeling from the effects of the pandemic as early as February 2020, when outbreaks of the novel coronavirus on cruise ships were recorded.[ix] The outbreaks led to the imposition of stringent travel restrictions; thus, cruise ship companies had to immediately halt operations and dock their ships. As a result, the employment of thousands of sea-based OFWs were prematurely terminated. Their employment would probably resume only once a vaccine against the novel coronavirus is available.
Not all is lost. A group of OFWs who may justifiably feel less worried about job security pertains to health care workers currently employed by hospitals and health institutions in their host countries. For obvious reasons, the demand for health care workers has gone beyond the charts. This prompted the Philippine Government thru the Philippine Overseas Employment Agency (POEA) to initially ban health workers from leaving the country.[x] However, after a huge backlash, the POEA slightly relaxed the deployment ban on health workers by allowing all medical and allied healthcare professionals with perfected and signed overseas employment contracts as of March 08, 2020 to be deployed abroad.[xi]
Technically, health care workers whose contracts expired and new hires after March 08, 2020 are not allowed to be deployed until further notice by the POEA. Regardless of the propriety or wisdom of such rules, affirmative deployment of new healthcare workers for foreign job sites will unlikely be forthcoming.
To be sure, if compared to the overall global jobmarket, land-based and sea-based OFWs comprise one of the more resilient sectors in the face of the pandemic. We hope that ingenuity, resiliency, and other ironclad qualities that typify our modern-day heroes, wherever situated, shall continue to empower them and their families throughout this uncharted battlefield which we now call the “New Normal.”
Edrian M. Apaya is a Senior Associate of Gorriceta Africa Cauton & Saavedra (www.gorricetalaw.com). He is a member of the Corporate, Labor, and Litigation Groups. His practice areas include taxation law, general corporate law, litigation, labor, and transportation law.
[i] Banko Sentral ng Pilipinas (February 15, 2019). Personal Remittances Rises to a New Record in December 2018; Full-Year Level Highest to Date. Retrieved from http://www.bsp.gov.ph/publications/media.asp?id=4940&yr=2019 on May 10, 2020.
[ii] Philippine Statistics Authority (April 30, 2019). Total Number of OFWs Estimated at 2.3 Million (Results from the 2018 Survey on Overseas Filipinos). Retrieved from https://psa.gov.ph/statistics/survey/labor-and-employment/survey-overseas-filipinos on May 09, 2020.
[iii] International Labour Organization (April 07, 2020). COVID-19: Stimulating the Economy and Employment. Retrieved from https://www.ilo.org/global/about-the-ilo/newsroom/news/WCMS_740893/lang--en/index.htm on May 09, 2020.
[v] Department of Labor and Employment (April 26, 2020). Over 230k OFWs Seek Government Cash Aid; 2M Workers Displaced by Pandemic. Retrieved from https://www.dole.gov.ph/news/over-230k-ofws-seek-govt-cash-aid-2m-workers-displaced-by-pandemic/ on May 10, 2020
[vi] Philippine Information Agency (April 25, 2020). DFA Says More Than 19,000 OFWs Repatriated Since ECQ by Angelie Villapando. Retrieved from https://pia.gov.ph/news/articles/1040054 on May 10, 2020.
[vii] Department of Labor and Employment (May 07, 2020). Over 1M Workers Get DOLE Cash Aid. Retrieved from https://www.dole.gov.ph/news/over-1m-workers-get-dole-cash-aid/ on May 09, 2020.
[viii] Philippine Information Agency (April 25, 2020). DFA Says More Than 19,000 OFWs Repatriated Since ECQ by Angelie Villapando. Retrieved from https://pia.gov.ph/news/articles/1040054 on May 10, 2020.
[ix] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (March 27, 2020). Public Health Responses to COVID-19 Outbreaks on Cruise Ships — Worldwide, February–March 2020. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6912e3.htm on May 10, 2020
[x] Philippine Overseas Employment Agency (April 02, 2020). POEA Governing Board Resolution №09 Series of 2020. Retrieved from http://www.poea.gov.ph/gbr/2020/GBR-09-2020.pdf on May 09, 2020.
[xi] Philippine Overseas Employment Agency (April 20, 2020). Advisory №47 series of 2020. Retrieved from http://www.poea.gov.ph/advisories/2020/Advisory-47-2020.pdf on May 09, 2020.