By Samuel P. Medenilla & Recto Mercene
THE deployment of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) in the Middle East will continue to drop, on account of the widespread effects of the coronavirus disease, and helped along by the dramatic drop in oil prices among oil-producing countries, according to an industry expert.
The Mideast OFW-deployment issues compound the already problematic situation of thousands of OFW working in cruise ships worldwide, one of the most impacted by the rapid spread of the dreaded respiratory virus.
At the same time, the Philippine government is now considering the repatriation of hundreds of OFW stranded in the Middle East after Kuwait imposed travel restrictions on foreigners as COVID-19 cases continue to rise.
During an Interagency Task Force (IATF) in Malacañang on Monday, Labor Secretary Silvestre H. Bello III reported 740 Kuwait-bound Filipinos were affected by the travel restriction.
“Those who reached Kuwait have no problem, but those in Qatar and Dubai are barred from traveling to Kuwait,” Bello reported at the meeting.
Bello said the Kuwaiti government imposed the travel restriction since it will need seven days to procure equipment to detect passengers with COVID-19.
“DOLE’s option is either to repatriate the OFWs or wait until the ban is lifted,” Bello said in a statement.
Last week, Bello said they will scale down the deployment of OFWs bound for Kuwait due to the travel restrictions it imposed.
In an SMS, Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) Administrator Bernard P. Olalia told the BusinessMirror they already enforced the said restriction.
President Duterte earlier said the government is ready to bring home Filipinos abroad who were affected by the effects of COVID-19.
“Any Filipino for that matter. Wherever he may be. And if he wants to go home here, to his country, we are duty bound to bring him back to the Philippines,” Duterte said.
In a related development, Bello said they are also ready to help OFWs affected by the travel restriction imposed by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) and Qatar.
He said 1,300 OFWs were unable to leave for Qatar after it banned travelers from virus-infected countries, including the Philippines, in the last 14-days, DOLE has sought funding to compensate the workers.
“Statistics show a consistent decline of OFW deployment from 2017 until today due to the slowing economy of the Middle East countries of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain,” according to recruitment and travel consultant Manny Geslani.
He said prices of crude oil this year have been flat due to competition, hobbled by the entry of the COVID-19 disease now gripping the world.
“Crude oil prices have dropped to the 2014 level of $40 per barrel, further impacting on the economies of the Middle East countries,” he said. Saudi Arabia recently slashed 30 percent of its crude oil prices and increased output to 12 million barrels a day to offset Russia’s production prices of crude oil, now down to $30 dollars a barrel.
Meanwhile, he said the rising number of travel bans imposed by some countries wary of the spread of the COVID-19 “may eventually affect the deployment of OFWs this year.”
Along the way, OFW remittances will grow to a trickle “as the dreaded disease continues to move into many parts of the world,” he warned
Qatar has banned the entry of flights into the tiny kingdom bringing in new arrivals except its own citizens and permanent residents. However, he said “Doha denied entry for workers from 13 countries, including the Philippines.”
He noted that “there are about 300,000 OFWs in Qatar, the world’s largest producer of natural gas and the country is in the midst of the massive construction of sports facilities and hotels for the World Cup 2022 with hundreds of thousands expatriate workers.”
There are 250,000 OFWs in Kuwait, 220,000 of whom are household service workers (HSW).
Saudi Arabia, Geslani said, “hosts 1.4 million OFWs.” It has not issued a travel ban for Filipinos entering Saudi Arabia, “but has already banned arrivals from 14 coronavirus-stricken countries from the Middle East and Europe.”
With the rising number of locally transmitted COVID-19 cases, now at 33 in the Philippines, Geslani fears the country “would be included among countries banned by the Kingdom in the next few days.”
Meanwhile, the sea-based sector where Filipinos are employed in one-third of the world’s seagoing vessels is also bracing for the impact of COVID-19 on cruise and cargo ships.
Filipino seamen on board the 272 cruise ships belonging to the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) are worried because many cruise ships especially in Asia have canceled scheduled trips to the Caribbean.
So far, the CLIA has canceled eight China sailings through March 4, while Princess Cruises has canceled 12 cruises through March 20.
Holland America said it is weighing port restrictions in Asia before deciding on a cruise scheduled to leave Yokohama on February 28.
Norwegian Cruise Lines has canceled scheduled Asian cruises on the Norwegian Spirit through December 7 and, in some cases, cruises are being rerouted. Norwegian said a 24-day cruise leaving South Africa on March 22 that was supposed to end in Singapore will now last 27 days and end in Greece.
Geslani said this development means Filipinos who have been recruited to board these cruise ships “will have to wait for embarkation until the cruise companies decided to start their new schedules.
Cargo ships with Filipino seafarers on board “will now reduce their destinations as the world economy suffers a decline. The majority of the goods are loaded in China where the lockdown on numerous factories have practically stop imports and exports of products,” he said.
The cruise ships’ association adopted measures to ensure the safety of their passengers like preventing the boarding of passengers coming from China, Hong Kong, Macau, Japan and South Korea, countries with high incidence of COVID-19 cases.