LABOR Secretary Silvestre Bello 3rd on Tuesday ordered a temporary suspension in the deployment of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) to Qatar following the decision of neighboring Gulf countries to cut off diplomatic ties over the former’s alleged support for terrorists.
The crisis has forced flag-carrier Philippine Airlines (PAL) to stop transporting Qataris to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and UAE citizens to Qatar, and the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP) to review its projection of 4 percent growth in OFW remittances this year.
The suspension of deployment was the first ever enforced by the Department of Labor and Employment (DoLE), even in the absence of a travel warning from the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA).
“We are foreseeing possible problems in Qatar like food shortage. It (Qatar) does not produce food and our OFWs are the first victims. We need to prepare to meet the exigencies,” Bello said in a news conference.
The Cabinet official said the suspension order covers the processing of work documents of OFWs bound for Qatar. “This is for their own good,” Bello said.
He stressed, however, that there was no cause for alarm or a need for the immediate repatriation of OFWs, based on an advisory by the Philippine labor attaché in Qatar.
There are 141,000 documented OFWs in Qatar, Bello said. The number goes beyond 200,000 if undocumented workers are included.
A Filipino supermarket worker in Qatar said in a radio interview there had been panic buying as a result of the diplomatic crisis.
Supermarket shelves are empty and it was uncertain how stocks could be replenished because supplies come from Saudi Arabia and neighboring countries.
Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt, the UAE, Yemen and the Maldives broke off relations with Qatar on Monday over its alleged support to the Islamic State and Al Qaeda.
Bello advised all OFWs in Qatar to remain calm but cautious.
“Our labor office in Qatar is ready to extend any form of assistance given the circumstances may require…Our [labor office]is open on 24-hour service for any emergency situation,” he said.
Bello also said OFWs should not worry as the Philippines maintains good diplomatic relations with Qatar.
“I was invited by the minister of labor of Qatar this September [to discuss]the secure and more lenient processing of deployment of our migrant workers. They said they prefer more Filipino workers. And we maintain good labor relations for the welfare and security of our OFWs,” Bello said.
Bello said he would sign labor agreements on the social protection and security of OFWs.
Malacañang vowed to extend assistance to OFWs who would be affected by the diplomatic crisis.
In a statement, the DFA expressed concern over the recent events in the Gulf region and “hopes that all concerned parties will be able to resolve issues peacefully.”
Lucio Tan-owned flag carrier PAL on Tuesday said that it won’t carry Qataris to the UAE, while UAE nationals won’t be allowed to board for Doha, Qatar as a result of the diplomatic row.
PAL however stressed that all its flights to the Middle East would continue to operate.
The airline operates 30 flights per week to the Middle East (seven times weekly to Dubai; four times weekly to Kuwait; four times weekly to Doha; five times weekly to Dammam; three times weekly to Jeddah, and seven times weekly to Riyadh.)
Cielo Villaluna, PAL spokeswoman, said that “while PAL is not a party to the dispute and maintains strong bilateral ties to these countries, it shall observe guidelines issued by said nations.”
Also on Tuesday, the central bank said it would review its 4-percent growth projection for OFW remittances this year to take into account the impact of the diplomatic crisis in Qatar.
“We’ll have to review the projections if that’s the case, and we’ll have to look at the potential impact on the remittances if indeed the deployment of workers is going to go down. We don’t know how long it will last, it’s hard to say at this point,” outgoing BSP Governor Amando Tetangco Jr. told reporters.
For incoming BSP Governor Nestor Espenilla Jr., any disturbance in the Middle East is a source of concern for the central bank as there are many overseas Filipinos working there.
Espenilla, nevertheless, said there were previous incidents in the Middle East, including war, that did not significantly impede the flow of remittances.
“So it is very premature to draw any conclusion to a news that is just unfolding,” he said.
Latest data from the BSP showed that remittances in the first quarter of 2017 reached $7.70 billion, up 8.1 percent from $7.13 billion a year earlier. Qatar was one of the major sources of cash remittances during the period.
with BENJIE L. VERGARA, MAYVELIN U. CARABALLO AND CATHERINE S. VALENTE