Overseas Filipino workers await for flight updates while cooped up in a school in Pasay City that serves as temporary shelter for stranded migrant workers. Veejay Villafranca/Bloomberg
Deaths, meltdowns, valor
Ever since the coronavirus spread to the Philippines early last year, sparking prolonged and painful lockdowns, FOCAP journalists have scoured the treacherous front lines of the pandemic to chronicle its cataclysmic impact in the country—from the menacing rise in infections and deaths to the crippling economic downturn.
Wearing their N95 masks, face shields and, at times, hazmat suits, they filed grim dispatches and harrowing images from hospitals, quarantine centers, morgues and other COVID-19 hotspots.
They also told stories of valor and hope.
The Stranded Migrant Workers
By Buena Bernal, Channel News Asia
Overseas Filipino Workers — hailed as heroes at home — face uncertainties and a bleak future amid the global pandemic
For most of 2019, Anthony Medina was aboard a foreign commercial fishing vessel, contracted as a crew out in the deep sea. This is how it’s been for nearly the past seven years since he finished maritime school.
After his year-long contract, he and his crewmates were in- formed of pandemic-related port restrictions on individual disembarkation from marine vessels.
They were forced to transfer to another ship while they waited for restrictions to ease, stranded in a cargo ship anchored off the waters of China for 10 months.
“In our prolonged extended stay in the big ship in China, we weren’t given our full salary. We couldn’t disembark. We had limited food. No work, no food,” Mr. Medina said in an inter- view in his home for a story I was doing for CNA.
When their ship got close enough to shore for him to gain phone signal to call his wife, Mr. Medina learned that his agency failed to remit to his wife his salaries for the past year.
Instead of raising hell upon his return to the Philippines, he signed an agreement that compensated him with half a month’s pay for each month he worked. He also waived future claims.
He no longer had the energy to argue, did not have access to expensive lawyers, and did not have the resources to prolong his stay in Manila for a lengthy negotiation. He just wanted to go home.
Home was a small hut nestled in a farming plateau in Rizal province, east of Manila, where his wife and two-year-old daughter were.
After a long time at sea and since his ar- rival last September, it’s been a slow cruise back to familiarity. The heaviest price of his long absences from home, he said, was the emotional toll of having a distant relationship with a toddler who grew up without him around.
A week after my interview with Mr. Me- dina, I met and interviewed Arceli Nucos. She was a Filipino domestic worker in Singapore for 30 years until a car crash in December 2019 left her with critical inju- ries. With only five percent of her nerves in her left leg functioning, she may never walk normally again.
She came home in November, after 10 months in a Singapore hospital.
Home for Ms. Nucos was a quaint seaside town in La Union province, northwest of Manila, where her siblings and their children she had supported for three decades were ready to care for her. She has no family of her own, having worked overseas for most of her life.
“For all her sacrifices for us, we will give back twofold in her time of need,” her brother Reynaldo told me as he held back his tears.
“We didn’t expect this to happen to her, but that’s life. That is how life is. What’s done is done. We will just support each other,” Reynaldo vowed, pausing between phrases.
Ms. Nucos believes this is her second chance at life and that every single step she takes today, even without perfect gait, is already a miracle.
“My employer, loved ones and my sister- in-law always visited me (in the hospital). God is with me. Fellow domestic workers visited during their day off. My employers visited when they had time. My nurses were kind, many of them Filipinos,” she said, smiling.
“Think positively. Even when I was in the hospital, I didn’t treat it as a problem. Fight on,” she proclaimed.
Her story of survival was a glimmer of hope to a pandemic year of gloom.
The Philippines, as we know, is a top source of migrant workers around the world.
Some 2.2 million Filipino workers were overseas at any time from April to Sep- tember 2019, according to the Philippine Statistics Authority. Two in every five of them were in what are called “elementary occupations,” doing routine tasks that required physical effort. The estimates are considered conservative given the undoc- umented migrants.
But the government’s goal has always been to provide enough jobs at home, so that Filipinos no longer feel like finding opportunities abroad is their most viable choice for a shot at a better life.
Advocates say returning Filipino migrant workers are faced with limited prospects at home, made even worse by the pan- demic. To date, more than 400,000 Filipi- no overseas workers had returned home, burdening the economy already groaning from a recession.
The pandemic year of 2020 was a remind- er to us journalists to continue bearing witness and to amplify the voices of those who no longer have the energy to do so.