Far from home amid the Covid-19 pandemic: Filipinos tighten their belts for long, hard road ahead

Migrant workers are the backbone of many economies in Asia and the Middle East and a vital source of income for families back home. But the pandemic has hit these workers hard, leading some to lose their jobs or face salary cuts. The Straits Times correspondents around the region talk to migrant workers to hear their stories.

Filipinos who availed general amnesty granted by the Kuwaiti government arrive at the Kuwait International Airport on April 3, 2020.
Filipinos who availed general amnesty granted by the Kuwaiti government arrive at the Kuwait International Airport on April 3, 2020.PHOTO: AFP

The coronavirus pandemic has displaced at least 90,000 Filipinos working abroad, most as low-wage labourers in the Gulf states.

Many have been furloughed without pay, or are now jobless because of lockdowns or shelter-at-home restrictions, according to the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration.

With the world's economies cratering, researchers here estimate that up to 400,000 out of some four million Filipinos in 46 countries may take a hit. Most will suffer pay cuts, or may have to look for other jobs or return to the Philippines.

Nearly all work for companies considered “non-essential” and have been shuttered.  They are hotel and mall workers, waiters, cooks, entertainers, and factory, oil and construction workers.

Most will suffer pay cuts, or may have to look for other jobs or return to the Philippines.

Close to 40,000 have already decided to head back home, rather than be marooned in a far-away place without a job and a salary. Half worked for the beleaguered cruise ship industry.

The pandemic itself has taken a heavy toll on Filipinos abroad. The Foreign Ministry said at least 200 have died from Covid-19, the disease the virus causes, and close to 2,000 have been infected.

Ms Andrea Rose Rosal, 61, a retired nurse, has two sons working in the United Arab Emirates. Both were furloughed when the Emirates went on lockdown. For now, they are more in need of help than they are able to help their mother.

"I had to borrow 30,000 pesos (S$840) from a bank to send to my son," Ms Rosal told The Straits Times.

That son, Desmond, 35, works as a sales employee in Dubai. He counts himself lucky because his company will pay him though there is no work for now, even after Dubai lifted its 24-hour lockdown back to a 10pm to 6am curfew on April 24.

"The company promised to advance payment for unused vacation leave. That means I won't be able to go home. But that's okay. No one wants to go home right now anyway," he said.

He said many other Filipinos in Dubai had already lost their jobs. But they too are not planning to head back to the Philippines any time soon.

“They’re using up their savings or borrowing money to get by,” he said.

Ms Rosal said her other son, Loy, 32, who works at a restaurant in Abu Dhabi, has gone back to work after the Emirati state eased its restrictions. But his salary has been slashed by half, and he is not sure how long the restaurant will stay open.

Loy, too, has not been able to send money to his mum, who needs up to 6,000 pesos worth of medication for hypertension and diabetes a month.

  • 4m

  • Number of Filipinos working in 46 countries.

He is already supporting a nine-year-old son, and his wife, who works with him at the same restaurant, is pregnant with another child. He also just recently bought a home.

For now, Ms Rosal and her husband have had to use their savings from incomes they had from a rice farm outside Manila. 

That farm is not producing anything right now because there are no workers to harvest the crops and all roads to Manila have been shut.

“We just pray to lessen the anxiety,” she said.

In Singapore, most Filipinos who work in construction have been on stay-at-home notices. They worry about their families back home. But they are also glad the pandemic caught them while they were still in Singapore.

A 50-year-old lorry driver told The Straits Times he is still getting his salary, and his company regularly checks up on him to make sure he has everything he needs while the circuit breaker is in effect.

But he often thinks about his family in Davao City. He worries that any one of them could become infected and he would not be able to fly home to them, he said.

A son was supposed to join him and work at a restaurant in Singapore in March. But the coronavirus outbreak scuttled that plan.

“Maybe next year,” he said.

“It’s very hard, but I have to be strong,” he said.  “It’s better that I make the sacrifice than for all of us to suffer.”

A 35-year-old safety officer said he is more worried about keeping his job than getting the virus.

 
 

He went to Singapore in September last year on an S Pass that he has to renew every year.

He fears that if Singapore stumbles into a recession, his company may have to let him go. He has three children, the eldest just 11 years old.

He said he knows a Filipino working for a recruitment firm who was let go, even though her S-pass was valid till December (2020).

He said he is also scared he may get infected. He shares his flat with two fellow Filipinos who still go to work at a nursing home.

Reports reaching the Philippine Embassy in Singapore said at least six Filipinos who tested positive for the virus were linked to clusters involving dormitories housing migrant workers.

"Even if the government offers a free ticket to fly home today, I won't take it, even with this pandemic. I have payables, monthly obligations, so I have to dig in and just pray. I just have to get used to this 'new normal'," he said.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 04, 2020, with the headline 'Filipinos tighten their belts for long, hard road ahead'. Subscribe