OFW deployment to Qatar halted

Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III answers a reporter’s question on deployment of Filipino workers to Bahrain in a news conference of Cabinet workers who accompanied President Rodrigo Duterte to the kingdom on Good Friday, April 14, 2017. (Photo from a video by the President Communications Operations Office)

The Department of Labor and Employment on Tuesday suspended the deployment of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) to Qatar amid the diplomatic crisis hounding the Middle Eastern country.

This is the first time the Philippines has imposed a travel ban to a country without an alert raised by Manila.

Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates on Monday cut diplomatic ties with Qatar over its support of Islamist groups and its relations with Iran. (Story in The World, Page A9)

“We stopped all processing. Even those who were scheduled to go, we are sorry, but we have to suspend first the deployment,” Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III said in a news conference.

“This is for us to be able to assess the situation because there are so many wild rumors going around, saying things are not going well there,” he said.

“This is for their own protection,” Bello said.

“We know for a fact that Qatar does not produce its own food. If anything happens that they run out of food and food riots will take place, definitely our OFWs will be the first victims. We have to have preparatory measures,” he explained.

“We should advise our OFWs in Qatar and even our own office to start making stock of food provisions. They should stock up on food, water and medicines,” he added.

Philippine Airlines (PAL) said on Tuesday it continued to operate 30 flights a week to the Middle East, including four weekly flights to Doha. PAL said, however, it would observe guidelines issued by nations in the region.

One example was the Abu Dhabi Airport Immigration’s order to bar UAE nationals from traveling to Qatar. It likewise said all Qatari nationals would not be allowed to enter the UAE or transit through its airports.

Bello said there were no plans yet to repatriate Filipinos in Qatar.

“We still have to study the situation. But even before this time we have been sending some augmentation team not only to Qatar but also to the other Middle Eastern countries to meet any possible exigency,” he said.

Bello said the duration of the deployment ban would depend on the government’s assessment of the situation in the Arab country.

“We are in close coordination with the Department of Foreign Affairs. It depends if the situation will get worse or maybe the anticipated problem will not have come about, so it depends on the situation,” he said.

Most Filipinos who work in Qatar are skilled and semiskilled workers and professionals such as engineers and nurses, according to Assistant Labor Secretary Joji Aragon.

“Relatively, OFWs have good working conditions in Qatar,” she said.

There were 141,000 documented OFWs in Qatar as of 2016. “It could reach beyond 200,000 if we include those undocumented,” Bello said.

More than 2 million people from the Philippines are working in the Middle East as domestic helpers, construction workers, engineers and nurses. Saudi Arabia hosts almost a million Filipinos.

Presidential spokesperson Ernesto Abella told a media briefing that the government was concerned about the possible “ripple effects” of the Arab-Qatar rift on OFWs.

“Concerned government agencies are looking at the matter and will extend assistance and other support for OFWs who may be affected by such action,” Abella said.

The Philippines is one of the world’s largest recipients of overseas remittances. For the whole of 2017, the central bank expects remittances to grow 4 percent from last year’s $26.9 billion, which was equal to around 10 percent of gross domestic product. —WITH REPORTS FROM MIGUEL R. CAMUS


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