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More OFWs stranded in both Manila and HK as travel ban bites

04 February 2020

By The SUN
With nearly all flights to Manila from HK cancelled, Ann and her friend are thinking of flying to Taiwan first

Anna Jean Zamora, a domestic helper in Hong Kong for just three months, struggled with her large luggage and a heavy backpack as she phoned a friend on Feb 3 on the sidewalk of World-Wide Plaza in Central.   


She said she had just been terminated by her employer and was waiting for her friend to escort her to the employment agency in Kowloon so she could pick up her air ticket and fly home to Iloilo as soon as possible.

She said she’d already received her one month’s wage in lieu of notice but was clueless as to when she could fly back to the Philippines because of a travel ban to and from Hong Kong that the Manila government had imposed the day before.

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Zamora was meeting another helper with the same dilemma. In her case, her employers had allowed her to go home while they were overseas.

At least three other helpers had gone to Philippine Overseas Labor Office on the same day to seek help because their flights to Manila were cancelled.

It was a story told several times during the day, as the travel ban imposed by President Rodrigo Duterte for all inbound and outbound flights between Manila and Hong Kong, Macau and China, went on its second day.
POLO officer-in-charge Antonio Villafuerte said his office was kept busy the whole day by employment agencies, employers and workers all asking how to respond to the ban.

Not a few were worried because their visas were expiring, but they didn’t know when they could head home, or where to stay in Hong Kong while they waited out the ban.

Over in the Philippines, hundreds of Filipino overseas workers were left wringing their hands at several international airports because they, too, could not fly to Hong Kong because of the ban.


Anxious OFWs hoping against hope they could still board their flight to HK

Villafuerte said that those in Hong Kong whose visas are expiring should go to the Immigration Department to ask for an extension, which he said would most likely be given as Hong Kong was aware of the travel ban.

“If they still encounter problems then they could come and see us in Polo,” Villafuerte said.



He advised those who do not have accommodation to seek temporary shelter with their employment agencies. Otherwise, they could stay in low-cost boarding houses, or shelters run by NGOs like the Mission for Migrant Workers or the Catholic Centre.

For the workers stranded in the Philippines due to the ban, Villafuerte said they should explain the situation to their employers to avert dismissal.

“Paliwanagan nila ang mga amo nila kung ano ang nangyayari. Kung may malawak silang pag-iisip, tatanggapin kayo,” Villafuerte said.

He acknowledged that the biggest potential problem could be terminations, especially those who are badly needed in Hong Kong by their employers.

One of the stranded workers had this in mind when she sent a message online to appeal for help.

“Bakasyon po ako dito sa Pinas. Ang flight ko pabalik sa Hong Kong ay na-cancel… Paano po pag i-terminate ng amo, may makukuha pa po ba ako sa employer ko? May 7 days pa ako na sahod na naiwan sa kanila,” Joan Tolentino said in her message.

Villafuerte said that if a termination does occur, all Polo could do is to help the worker go after the employer for the compensation due her under the employment contract.

But if there is a chance that the employer could be convinced to change his or her mind, Polo could try to intercede on the worker’s behalf.
 
Villafuerte says Polo will extend help to OFWs who might be fired for failing to return to work as scheduled
At least one positive news came the way of the stranded passengers in Manila, when Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III said they’d get each P10,000 financial assistance from the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration. Those stuck at the airport will also be housed at OWWA’s halfway-home.

OWWA Welfare Officer Marivic Clarin said the guidelines for the distribution of the Php10,000 was still being finalized. “It’s for workers who are on vacation in the Philippines and have confirmed flights back to Hong Kong. We had a similar assistance (program) before.”

Unfortunately for those who are in Hong Kong and have been bumped off their flights to the Philippines, the financial aid won’t be made available to them. Clarin said it’s because they can still fly out to the Philippines, and allowed entry.

President Duterte imposed the ban after a Chinese man from Wuhan died of coronavirus infection in Manila, making him the first casualty of the deadly disease outside China.

The government moved to stop the contagion by banning all non-Filipinos who had been to China, Hong Kong and Macau from entering the country. Filipinos would be allowed in, but they will have to undergo self-quarantine for 14 days.

On flights back to the three destinations, however, only foreigners are allowed to book seats, Filipinos can’t, even if Hong Kong and Macau, or even China, will not bar their entry.
 
PAL canceled all its flights to China, HK and Macau until Feb 29
There was immediate chaos after the ban was announced, with Filipinos, including those permanently residing in Hong Kong, scrambling to find ways to get past immigration scrutiny in Manila.

Not a few booked flights to Thailand and Singapore and other nearby destinations, but secretly made onward flights to Hong Kong, in a bid to get around the prohibition.

Travel industry insiders say a number of Filipino professionals successfully got out using this trick, but Manila Immigration caught on by noon on seeing an unusually large number of departures to Bangkok and Singapore, and immediately clamped down on the practice.

One of those in the know said the dead giveaway for immigration officers was if the traveler is, or used to be, an overseas Filipino worker in Hong Kong.

At least one foreign domestic worker who tried to pull off the same trick was offloaded at Ninoy Aquino International Airport despite showing an invitation letter from a supposed host in Singapore. In truth, her Hong Kong employer was just determined to fly her back to the city after her vacation so she could resume taking care of her young ward.

Another desperate employer also tried to get his Filipina domestic worker to fly to Bangkok, then on to Hong Kong, but on being shown a message from Polo advising against this move, he relented.
 
Quarantine card issued to all Filipinos who arrive in Manila from the affected routes
Polo’s advisory read, “Do not attempt to fool Manila Immigration by going to another country en route to Hong Kong. Immigration officers there have banned HK OFWs leaving for whatever reason, and in at least one case, traumatized one who tried to go to Singapore.”

Those due to fly out of Hong Kong are similarly trapped. While the ban says they will be allowed entry in the Philippines, all three major airlines flying to Manila had cancelled all their flights, inbound and outbound, until Feb 29.

Only Hong Kong Airlines was still flying its sole direct flight to Manila, but with prices as high as $7,300, one way. The cheapest ticket on the route still comes out to $3,000 one way, which is just a third of what the budget airline used to charge.

The challenge of getting home despite the ban does not faze Zamora and her friend. They are now talking of flying to Taiwan, then on to Manila from there.

The two could be quarantined when they get to Manila once immigration sees them as having come from Hong Kong, but that’s the easier part of the problem. The bigger part is, will Zamora’s friend still be able to fly back to Hong Kong?

Only the lifting of the ban could guarantee that.
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