Filipino migrants all over the world are affected by the crisis caused by COVID-19. According to the statistics of the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), 368 Filipinos abroad have been infected as of March 31, 2020, with 9 deaths and 117 individuals recovered.
The impact of this crisis, however, goes far beyond those who have been infected. Many Filipino migrants have experienced job lay-offs/losses due to closures or reduction of operations by businesses, both big and small, as part of ‘social distancing’ measures. In Canada, a significant number of Filipinos are working in what are considered non-essential businesses, such as retail and personal services, and thus severely affected by lay-offs and reduction of hours.
Many Filipinos also work in essential jobs, such as food processing and the health and care sector. In food processing, elbow-to-elbow work conditions make them more vulnerable to infection. In the health sector, they face the issue of a lack of protective gear badly needed by front-line health workers and personal support workers to keep themselves from being infected while working in hospitals, medical facilities and long-term care homes.
Undocumented migrants and temporary foreign workers are the most vulnerable as they lack access to affordable health care, decent housing and economic relief provided to citizens and residents by host governments. Migrants overall have less resources to purchase protective materials, such as protective masks and hand sanitizers.
Due to border lock-downs, migrants are unable to cross borders to be able to work. This means a significant slowdown in the deployment of overseas Filipino workers for both new hires and returnees. Illness, job losses and border lock-downs all have an adverse economic impact on the Philippines, as the country relies heavily on migrant remittances to keep its economy afloat.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the negative consequences of the export of Filipino workers as part of the country’s Labour Export Policy that was set up in the 1970s. The LEP was set up in the 1970s to reduce unemployment and ease social unrest, and there is a high dependency on migrant worker remittances. In 2018, the Philippines was the 4th largest recipient of remittances (US$34 billion), after India (US$79 billion), China (US467 billion) and Mexico (US436 billion).
It is clear that the labour export policy is not the solution. It has become more important than ever that the roots of migration be tackled by the Philippine government. Filipinos need decent and sustainable jobs in their home country through the development of national industries, not the limited number of jobs that are generated by foreign-owned corporations. The problem of landlessness in the Philippines also needs to be solved as it fuels poverty in the country.
In the immediate term, there needs to be access to free mass testing for the corona virus and access to health care to meet the urgent needs of Filipino families. For so long, government expenditure in education, health and social services have been minimal, which has become evident in the lack of testing for the virus and a lack access to affordable health services.
Instead, priority has been given to a militarized approach (i.e., lock-down of the capital region) and an ongoing whole-of nation counterinsurgency program to silence the voices of resistance that has led to widespread violations of the human rights of the Filipino people.
Filipino migrants are not only concerned about their situation overseas, they also need their families to be safe back home. Just like in Canada and other countries, there needs to be a comprehensive plan that emphasizes the health, safety and socio-economic support to Filipinos, not a military solution that re-victimizes those who have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.