The trust fund for overseas Filipino workers could be depleted by the end of 2021 if the current pandemic response continues, Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) chief Hans Cacdac said Wednesday.
In a Senate hearing, Cacdac said the P18.8 billion OWWA fund from OFW contributions could go down to P10 billion by the end of this year to cover the costs of the COVID-19 response.
So far, the agency has spent P1.1 billion on hotels for returning OFWs (P784 million), food (P132 million), and transportation (P46 million). Of this sum, P915 million came from the trust fund while P152 million came from OWWA’s emergency repatriation fund.
OWWA spent around P29,000 per person for the 28,000 OFWs who were billeted at hotels. OWWA also provided food assistance to 70,000 overseas Filipinos and t 70,000 seafarers stuck in the country due to the lockdown in March.
At the same time, a Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) official on Wednesday said the agency’s P1 billion fund intended to assist OFWs could “run out” by August if repatriation efforts entailing chartering of flights continue due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The DFA has already spent 66 percent of its “assistance-to-nationals” fund, DFA Undersecretary Sarah Arriola told the Senate Committee on Labor, Employment and Human Resources Development.
“Our funds will run out by the end of August... The fund is not just for COVID-19,” she said. “We did not foresee that there will be COVID-19 so we are overspending.”
Arriola said the DFA is looking to bring home some 167,000 OFWs, of whom, more than 158,000 are working in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Repatriation efforts are taking time due to aviation and health restrictions, she said.
“We are calibrating the repatriation... We do not want them to be stranded in Metro Manila and quarantine facilities,” Arriola explained.
Meanwhile, Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra said the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF) will decide next week on whether or not to allow foreign nationals with permanent visas and working on state flagship projects to re-enter the country.
Guevarra, a member of the IATF, said the IATF technical working group is studying the matter after a foreign embassy requested that the government allow the entry of their nationals who are holders of Bureau of Immigration (BI)-issued permanent visas.
The request covered the foreign consultants and technical workers from the country whose expertise may be needed in the construction of state flagship projects.
However, Guevarra said the IATF’s decision will not only cover the requesting country, but also other foreign nationals similarly situated.
The task force is also studying the possibility of allowing foreigners who belong to another category such as those who have retired in the country and those who have set up businesses, to return to the country.
“We also have to see how many foreign nationals are really involved. If they comprise a manageable number, the IATF may consider [allowing] them to re-enter,” Guevarra said.
The Justice secretary noted that many of these foreigners who want to enter have already been staying in the country, but were abroad when the lockdown was imposed.
They also have to consider the effect of allowing entry to these foreigners to the repatriation of more than 100,000 overseas Filipino workers who lost their jobs during to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We are studying these matters very carefully. We have to deal with the repatriation of thousands of OFWs and we do not want them to be crowded out by foreign nationals who will likewise have to be tested and quarantined upon arrival,” Guevarra said, adding that the task force’s priority are the OFWs.
Also on Wednesday, Consul General Raly Tejada said more than 12,000 Filipino workers are returning to Hong Kong in the coming months.
Of this number, more than 7,000 are newly-hired while around 4,755 have been previously terminated and are returning after securing new employers.
Hong Kong implements strict entry protocols for those returning from abroad. Foreigners and locals are subject to mandatory testing and are required to undergo a 14-day facility quarantine.
Tejada said recruitment agencies and employers are responsible for ensuring the health and accommodation of returning OFWs undergoing quarantine.
Tejada noted that Hong Kong’s response against Covid-19 had been effective, owing to the preventive measures it implemented when the virus epicenter was still in mainland China.
As early as January 2020, public establishments were closed down and large gatherings were barred. In addition, the positive cases were immediately isolated as authorities conducted intensive contact tracing on those who had contact with the infected.
“Here in Hong Kong, life is slowly returning to normal, the curve has flattened and we now actually have zero transmission here,” Tejada said. With PNA