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Govt must ensure well-being of OFWs in quarantine, say Filcom leaders

25 October 2020

By Daisy CL Mandap 

The lack of adequate support for quarantined workers was the topic of The SUN Interview

 

Filipino community leaders are urging officials from both the Hong Kong government and the Philippine Consulate to ensure newly arrived migrant workers are provided enough food and support while under quarantine

The call came after it emerged during a live Facebook interview by The SUN on Oct 21 that most overseas Filipino workers who spend the mandatory 14-day quarantine after arriving in Hong Kong are fed only greasy noodles and fried rice.

In many cases, quarantined workers are each given only a small bottle of water to drink per day that they are reportedly forced to drink water from the toilet taps, causing them diarrhea.

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The worst case reported by far is that of a first-time OFW who was forced to subsist for three days on mangoes she brought with her from the Philippines because she was not provided food in the tiny room booked for her by her employer at Chung King Mansions in Tsim Sha Tsui.

On hearing these dire stories, Marites Palma, founder of Social Justice for Migrant Workers, decided to help by kick-starting a fund-raising campaign for the needy migrant workers like herself.

At first, she said she tried to alert the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration about the plight of the quarantined workers, but with no help forthcoming, convinced her fellow administrators to pool their resources and extend help directly.

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The group raised a total of $23,000 which they also used to help cash-strapped workers stranded in the city by the pandemic. The fund was later supplemented by a grant of $29,800 that Palma obtained from the non-government organization, HerFund.

Palma said the money they raised has helped about 400 OFWs who were either stranded, quarantined, or found infected with Covid-19 on their arrival in Hong Kong, and were promptly sent back home by Immigration after being treated and discharged from hospital.

But the money has since dried up, even as the number of OFWs who come to Hong Kong for work, and inevitably end up being quarantined, continues to rise.

Poster for the charity hike to benefit quarantined workers

Not wanting to give up helping, Social Justice is to hold a charity walk today, Oct 25, so it could continue supplementing the food needs of quarantined workers.

Janette Carnay, a volunteer at the Bethune House Migrant Women’s Refuge, said it is good that the community is coming around to help, but adds the primary responsibility for ensuring the well-being of the quarantine workers lies with both the Hong Kong and Philippine governments.

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“Sino ba ang mas may resources para tumulong, di ba sila?,” Carnay asked. (Aren’t they the ones with the resources to help?)

Hong Kong’s Labour Department has stated that employers should bear the cost of the hotel quarantine and should provide a food allowance to the worker. But since the current food allowance is just $1,121 per month, the worker can rightfully claim to only about $40 for all three meals each day.

The Philippine Overseas Labor Office echoed this in a memo to agencies, but is not seen to have actively done anything to ensure that the directive is followed.


Labor Attache Melchor Dizon signed the POLO directive


Given this, Carnay said there should be a close coordination between the two governments so the newly arrived workers are assured of having enough sustenance during the quarantine period.

The Consulate, in particular, should be involved in this undertaking, said Carnay, “kasi mamamayan nila ang mga ito.” (because the quarantined workers are their citizens)

She also said the organizations would have difficulty sustaining the food needs of the workers on their own because of the sheer number of those who are starting to come in after travel restrictions in the Philippines were relaxed further.

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Latest statistics from the Immigration Department show that the number of Filipino domestic workers shot up by more than 2,300 last month, after a six-month decline.

Gail Hills, president of Pintura Circle, a group of Hong Kong-based Filipino artists, agreed that there is a need for both HK and the Philippines to do more to ensure that the workers in quarantine are given adequate food and care.

But she said institutional help might take time, so apart from raising the issue at government level, organizations like Social Justice and Bethune House should tap other individuals and groups to immediately join the food aid campaign.

Tunghayan ang isa na namang Kwentong Dream Love

“Tell us how we could help,” said Hills, who was herself spending her quarantine in a hotel, after arriving from the United Kingdom a few days earlier.

She was particularly touched by the stories of two OFWs who shared their quarantine stories during the interview.

Food pack given by Palma's group to a quarantined worker

One of them, Grace, related that all she was given while in quarantine was a pack of noodles and one small (375ml) bottle of water each day.

Luckily, she brought some canned goods on the advice of other recruits of her agency in Manila who had gone on ahead in Hong Kong.

She also happened to stay next door to another OFW whose family members in Hong Kong supplied her with food and water, so Grace managed to get a share of her neighbor’s ration.

But the food was still not enough, so Grace said she purposely did not sleep until 2 am so she could skip a meal by having both her breakfast and lunch at 11am the next day.

“Ang masaklap sa akin, nanghingi ako ng pagkain, hindi ako binigyan,” said Grace, who is now staying temporarily at Bethune House, a few days after her employer who did not respond to her appeal for food during quarantine, terminated their contract.  (What made me feel bad was that nobody responded when I asked for food)

The other OFW who shared her story was Mai Gutierrez, who counted herself lucky because her employer responded promptly to her complaint about the greasy food she was given at the hotel, which said the meal was part of a “package” purchased by her agency.

With their daily meal consisting of just plain noodles or fried rice for lunch and dinner, Mai and her fellow OFWs who were on different floors of the hotel decided to pass on food to each other through the hotel staff, until the practice was stopped because of the health risks it posed.

After her employer complained to the agency, which in turn raised the matter with the hotel, Mai was given some fruit and vegetables.

Mai said she developed allergies subsequently, which she suspected came from the spices in the food served by the hotel, so for the rest of her stay, she decided to just eat fruits.

Mai, who is now on an extended quarantine of seven days, said she hoped employers, agencies and hotel staff would in future discuss the food served to the quarantined workers so they will all know how unappetizing or inadequate the provision is.

But after hearing Grace’s story, Mai felt she was a bit lucky already, as she was given a 750 ml bottle of water each day. “Pag naubos, puwedeng tumawag ng dagdag ng walang extra charge.”(If it runs out, you can ask for more at no extra charge).

Palma, who out of frustration, recently posted a tearful appeal for help for the needy workers on Facebook, said she hoped people in authority would step in soon because her group’s resources are running low - and because it’s the right thing to do.

Sana maging sensitibo sila sa pangangailangan ng mga OFW, at tingnan kung paano sila makakatulong,” she said. (I hope they'd be more sensitive to the needs of our OFWs, and find out how they could help)

She now plans on initiating a petition that will draw attention to the problem, and hopefully, get those who should be responsible, to act fast. 

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