November 27, 2022

In a few weeks, the Philippines enters a new era of managing the exodus of Filipinos. Come April 3, the Department of Migrant Workers begins its operation by making baby steps to transition itself into a full-fledged department in one or two years.
Even if this new department may be able to reduce the number of overlapping programs and services for overseas Filipino workers and their families, moving forward from the Covid-19 pandemic continues to be a top policy priority.
The Philippines would like to move forward from March 15, 2020 – when President Rodrigo Duterte declared the first hard lockdown.
The droves of OFW return migrations and repatriations marked the past two years. Just over a million OFWs have returned home. Some who are still working abroad earned lesser salaries. If migrant workers were working in essential services, lockdowns in host countries diminished their work hours and their paychecks. In some host countries, irregular migrant workers were prohibited from receiving salary subsidies from host countries when lockdowns cause business closures.
These experiences by returnee, repatriated, and even deported OFWs prompted the government to employ a whole-of-government approach for these returnee OFWs.
The government has deployed multiple agencies to help returnee OFWs. The Inter-Agency Task Force on Emerging Infectious Diseases even designated multiple agencies, including the bureaus of Quarantine and Immigration, to manage the return of overseas Filipinos, not just OFWs. Yet migrant reintegration is the prevailing policy priority, especially since Covid-19 surges still hamper host countries.
In the past two years, how has government served returnees? Government data compiled by the nonprofit Institute for Migration and Development Issues (IMDI) can provide answers, covering the first two years of the pandemic.
Not surprisingly, there were more overseas Filipinos who returned home during the second year of the pandemic: 1,457,757 against 938,082 in the first year. The same trend can be seen from land- and sea-based migrant workers or OFWs: 1,001,116 in the second year versus 759,733 in the first year. The data came from daily monitoring reports by National Disaster Risk Reduction Management Council, secretariat of IATF’s Sub Task Group on the Management of Returning Overseas Filipinos.
In terms of overseas Filipinos reported to have contracted SARS-CoV2, the numbers in the second year (9,235) were less than in the first year (15,881). This dataset comes from the Department of Foreign Affairs through the embassies and consulates abroad, which followed a standard reporting format by the World Health Organization. But these totals may be underestimated.
For the returnees OFWs or migrant workers, five government agencies opened entrepreneurial loan facilities. Combining the OFW borrowers from these five agencies, only 2,550 returnee OFWs got those loans in the past two years. This trend may reflect that cash-strapped returnees may not be financially capable to borrow money to run enterprises while lockdowns and limited mobility do not spur face-to-face customer traffic.
Cash aid for returnee OFWs proved helpful, even if no amount of government-provided cash aid for pandemic-affected Filipinos will ever be enough. A prominent cash aid program is the Department of Labor and Employment’s Abot Kamay ang Pagtulong (AKAP) in which about 540,876 returnee and current OFWs got P10,000 or US$200 after being displaced due to the pandemic. Three OWWA programs for displaced and distressed returnee OFWs helped 33,565 returnees. AKAP handed over P5.4 billion while the three OWWA cash aid programs for distressed returnees handed over P323.25 million.
A visible number of OFWs and their dependents took advantage of getting further skills training while they are back home. These skills upgrading efforts give chances for returnees to return overseas for work in the future. In the past two years, the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority’s Online Program served 72,476 OFWs and their dependents.
Nearly 27,000 have enrolled in face-to-face and online voc-tech courses and 9,508 enrollees have received their national certifications under Tesda’s Abot Lahat ang OFWs program.
Many returnees would want to return for work abroad, but the border closures and travel restrictions significantly dipped the number of deployed OFWs, both new hires and rehires. In 2020, only 549,841 OFWs were deployed. A year later (at least until end-November 2021), the deployment numbers went up to 675,567 – signaling the reopening of some countries’ labor markets and the return to operations by some ocean-plying vessels. The all-time high migrant worker deployment figure was achieved in 2019 – 2,156,742.
These numbers, however, may point to bigger pictures surrounding the reintegration of returnee OFWs. The desire of many returnees is to bring themselves back to their overseas jobs and their salary levels, with an 8,332 survey by the International Organization for Migration Philippines office confirming that 48 percent of surveyed returnees planning to re-migrate. Pandemic-induced financial pressures and being accustomed to a somewhat better family financial condition can explain why many returnee OFWs want to “return” to their overseas work stations.
The government continues to offer reintegration programs and services, although re-migration may have to be one of those pathways. A forthcoming online service funded by the United Nations family in the Philippines, the OFW Reintegration Advisor, will provide six pathways for returnees’ plans. There’s employment back home, skills training, entrepreneurial or investment activities, assistance for trafficking and labor/gender abuse victims, retirement, and re-migration. Should the global situation normalize and countries’ labor markets re-open, the government may have no choice but to ensure that re-migrating OFWs go to safer workplaces and friendlier foreign employers.
Admittedly, the 2,550 returnees who availed of entrepreneurial loans may come as a dampener especially when we compare that total with the over-one million returnees. But the IOM survey just confirms such trend: about 46 percent of returnees IOM surveyed did not access or register government-provided reintegration assistance. AKAP may be more enticing since the P10,000/$200 is a grant, but borrowing money to earn a living during these times may be challenging for returnees (especially those lacking business skills). These returnees may think that overseas earnings will resolve their current-day economic challenges, even if borders remain closed for many countries.
Surprisingly, the skills training programs of Tesda and OWWA came out as relevant for over a hundred thousand OFWs and their dependents. Yet do not be surprised if these skills upgrading measures set OFWs’ sights on getting (re-)deployed abroad when situations normalize, or when some countries’ labor markets re-open.
Unless borders re-open and countries’ labor markets clamor for many foreign workers, pre-pandemic labor migration levels will not return immediately for the Philippines. Reintegration measures will thus remain a priority, that which the Department of Migrant Workers will expectedly put in the forefront. The forthcoming OFW Reintegration Advisor online facility may perhaps have to continue providing returnees with options with what to do.
In the end, the Covid-19 pandemic taught hard lessons to our OFWs and their families. Lessons such as practicing productive financial habits like investing, setting up goals for the OFW’s eventual return home, and even living by one’s means, may be daily tools for (returnee) OFWs and their families to move forward from this pandemic. (JEREMIAH M. OPINIANO)

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