‘Preserve and protect’

COMMONSENSE - Marichu A. Villanueva - The Philippine Star

In the nationwide mobile phone survey done from Sept. 17 to 20 by the Social Weather Stations (SWS), 46% of respondents felt as “inadequate” the government’s assistance to many Filipino workers who lost their jobs amid the outbreak of the 2019 coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic. By area, 54% of respondents of the SWS survey living in Metro Manila considered the government actions to help the jobless “inadequate” against 39% who deemed otherwise while the remaining 8% were undecided.

These sentiments prevailed among respondents in the national capital region – the epicenter of COVID-19 contagion that prompted the government to impose hard lockdown to stringent community quarantines for almost seven months now.

But the same SWS survey showed 71% of 1,249 adult Filipino respondents spoke favorably about the government’s response to the global pandemic. “However, only 44% believe government actions are adequate on ensuring the provision of adequate help for people who lost their job/livelihood,” the SWS noted. In a much earlier survey, the SWS also found that joblessness in the adult labor force in our country reached record-high at 45.5% as of August this year.

With these survey results perhaps in his mind, Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) Secretary Silvestre “Bebot” Bello III obviously sought to underscore what his agency has so far done to help formal and non-formal workers who lost their jobs and livelihood, respectively, in the aftermath of COVID-19 pandemic. This Bello did during our Kapihan sa Manila Bay Zoom Webinar last Wednesday along with other DOLE senior officials led by Philippine Overseas Employment Authority (POEA) administrator Bernard Olalia. Invited also was Overseas Workers’ Welfare Administration (OWWA) chief Hans Leo Cacdac but had to attend supposedly to another inter-agency meeting on Filipino workers’ plight in China.

Bello presented a status report on the social amelioration programs (SAPs) administered by DOLE to help all our displaced workers, including the millions of our overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) spread around the world who were likewise severely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Olalia, for his part, updated us about the pandemic-related assistance of the POEA to our OFWs who are considered the “modern day heroes” of the Philippine economy during crisis such as this COVID-19 pandemic.

Based on the DOLE labor force survey in January, or before COVID-19 pandemic, Bello noted, the country has “very good” employment rate with 42.6 million workers employed, or 1.6 million net employment gains compared to previous year’s level. Bello conceded the COVID-19 public health crisis has so far displaced around 3.5 million Filipino workers, including 1.9 million who were temporarily laid-off on the first half of this year.

This was after the Inter-Agency Task Force on the Management of Emerging and Infectious Diseases (IATF-MEID) instituted lockdowns and community quarantines all over the country from March to August. During this period, many manufacturing companies and other business enterprises were shuttered while operations of public transport utilities were suspended.

As DOLE Secretary, Bello is one of the Cabinet officials who composed the IATF that President Rodrigo Duterte reactivated last March following the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in our country. According to Bello, the DOLE has so far distributed a one-time assistance of P5,000 under the COVID Adjustment Measures Program (CAMP) to 658,886 formal workers in private establishments that have adopted “flexible working arrangements,” or temporary closure during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The DOLE, he disclosed, distributed P3.5 billion for the Abot-Kamay ang Pagtulong (AKAP) extending a one-time P10,000, or $200 cash aid each to 320,000 OFW returnees. And, he cited, another P1.5 billion for the DOLE’s Tulong Panghanap-buhay sa Displaced/Disadvantaged (TUPAD) or emergency employment program to some 423,511 informal workers like vendors, masseuse, washers etc. who lost their livelihood due to the quarantine restrictions.

Bello, however, promised the over half a million “un-served” applications for these DOLE-administered SAPs will soon be completed as soon as the Office of the President releases the P8 billion out of P13 billion allocated under the Bayanihan to Recover as One, or Bayanihan 2 law.

Meanwhile, Bello is trying to find ways to prevent more stranding of OFW returnees who could not yet go home because of COVID testing required by local government units (LGUs) in their respective provinces. It was an offshoot of the P930 million COVID test charges of the Philippine Red Cross to the Philippine Health Insurance that remain unpaid due to alleged differences on accounting and auditing requirements.

Bello announced DOLE may advance the payment after Olalia reported to him there are now at least 6,000 OFWs stranded in quarantine facilities following the suspension by Red Cross of laboratory processing of COVID tests. In the meantime, Olalia disclosed, the Philippine Coast Guard will continue to administer COVID testing of returning OFWs and seafarers upon their arrival in the airports/seaports. Olalia assuaged the OFW returnees and their respective families, the government – through the OWWA – will continue to pay for their accommodations and daily food sustenance while waiting for their COVID test results.

Among the mandates of DOLE, Bello cited, they are currently focused on its role to bounce back and recover from the effects of the pandemic “to help stimulate the Philippine economy by assisting employers to preserve existing employment while at the same time ensuring workers’ protection and welfare.”

Likewise, Bello added, the mandated role of the DOLE is to provide employment facilitation services to match job seekers to employment opportunities. “It is clear from our mandates, we don’t generate employment,” he stressed.

“Our mandate is to protect and preserve employment,” the Labor Secretary declared. A labor lawyer, Bello sounded more like a policeman.

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