Amid a raging diplomatic crisis in the Gulf region, the Philippine government on Tuesday stopped Filipinos from traveling to Qatar, fearing food riots and other potential problems.
Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello said the suspension order would remain in place until the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) deems it safe for Filipino workers to return to Qatar.
“Effective today, the deployment of Filipino workers to Qatar is suspended,” Bello said in a press conference, adding that the suspension covers even those with complete documents.
Bello said there was no plan yet to repatriate the more than 250,000 Filipinos in Qatar. The DFA says there are 250,000 Filipinos in Qatar, while the Labor Department’s records showed there were 141,000 documented Filipino workers in Qatar in 2016.
Presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella also expressed fear that the diplomatic crisis gripping Qatar “may have some ripple effects” over overseas Filipino workers (OFWs).
“Concerned government agencies are now looking at the matter and will extend other support and assistance to OFWs who may be affected by such action,” he said in a statement.
A Filipino labor policy and advocacy group lamented that no prior consultations were made by the Labor Department before issuing a suspension order.
“As stakeholders, we would have wanted to be a part of the decision-making process considering its impact on OFWs bound for Qatar,” said Susan Ople, head of the Blas F. Ople Policy Center.
The group, which also helps workers in distress, said it has not monitored or received any complaints or information about untoward incidents involving OFWs in Qatar since Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt cut ties with Qatar.
“Our workers in Qatar are focused on serving their companies well and providing for their families back home. They were surprised by the suspension order and have many questions about it. They remain hopeful that this impasse would be over soon,” Ople said in reply to an Arab News query.
“We appreciate the gravity and complexity of the problem and thus support calls for sobriety and peaceful dialogue as pathways to resolution. Meanwhile, every effort must be made to ensure that foreign workers who are doing their share to help the regional economy are not caught in the middle of the crisis. If there are consensus points to be made, one of them must be the continued protection of the rights and welfare of migrant workers wherever they may be in the Middle East.”
The Philippines is a major labor supplier, with about a tenth of more than 100 million Filipinos working abroad because of inadequate jobs and opportunities at home.
Bello said it was not an easy decision to make, considering that OFWs in Qatar “relatively enjoy good working conditions.” Most OFWs in Qatar work as technicians, skilled and semi-skilled workers.
However, he said: “We are foreseeing a possible problem in Qatar …, as you know, Qatar is not producing its own food. If anything happens and they run out of food and food riots take place, definitely our OFWs will be the first victims.”
Bello said the Philippine labor attache in Doha dismissed as “wild rumors” reports of store shelves going empty as panicky residents rushed to stock food supply.
Nonetheless, he said: “We need to adopt preparatory measures to meet the possible exigency.”
Bello added that he has directed the Philippine Overseas Labor Office (POLO) in Qatar to stock food. He said he has also sent additional manpower to the affected Mideast countries to address the concerns of OFWs.
Filipino workers in Qatar in interviews with Philippine media told of store shelves being emptied of food stocks on Monday.
A nurse at Hamad Medical Corporation told GMA News Online that her husband had to buy rice, canned goods, milk and water from a supermarket far from their apartment because the markets nearby were empty.
A mother of two said she could only buy so much food supply and diapers for her baby boy because there were no more stock available.
Another worker said he did not find the situation alarming, although he confirmed seeing empty store shelves “because of panic-buying.”
On Facebook, some Filipinos debated whether the suspension order was a good decision or not.
“Prudence dictates that the Philippine government should suspend the departure of Filipino citizens, OFWs or not, until the situation normalizes. As it is, the situation can further deteriorate. As such, contingency plans should already be prepared…” said Lito Madrasto.
Ricardo R. Casco argued: “The tension is rooted in the support extended to terrorists. Will we continue to send workers if that is the case? It’s not just about the safety reason. What is our position on terrorism?”
Jess Varela said: “Temporary suspension may be the prudent thing to do. But let’s not call it suspension. Let’s think of something that will somehow prolong deployment. It could be solved in three months and it will appear that we did not abandon a friendly nation in their times of need.”
He added: “If we are able to get the private recruitment agencies to agree and call for some sort of review, then it will not be the government who initiated the move. And if things get solved in three months, we will not be seen as unfriendly. If the crisis is prolonged, then we should have been ready in three months to get our OFWs out.”
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