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OFW plight shows extent of pandemic pinch

/ 05:22 AM January 30, 2021

MANILA, Philippines — Jose Tamares Jr. had many reasons for leaving his job as an engineer in the Philippines to work as a waiter in Qatar.

They were mostly about family. He said his daughter, who will be 9 in July, deserved greener pastures, and he was determined to find them even in the deserts of the Middle East.

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But as many reasons as he had leaving home, he was given none when he was let go by his employer. He was simply told that he was laid off, along with others. He just assumed it was because of the pandemic.

“They just said that they are laying off workers and they said it’s our last day on June 30. Then they took care of our papers [so we could fly back home],” he said in an online interview with the Inquirer on Thursday.

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The 31-year-old computer engineering graduate served as a waiter at a military base in Qatar for nearly three years. His was a five-year contract, and before 2020, it was going well, he said.

He earned nearly twice his old monthly salary in the Philippines and his employer paid for his board and lodging.

Buoyed by remittances

Tamares used to be one of more than 2 million overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) whose dollar remittances helped buoy the Philippine economy.

Now, he is one of the hundreds of thousands of OFWs who were forced to return home after losing their jobs to COVID-19.

Remittances in 2020 are expected to contract by 5 percent, the Central Bank predicted last June. That will mark a first in nearly two decades.

With many Filipinos coming back home jobless, Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas said it expected OFWs to send $2.1 billion fewer dollars in 2020.

The World Bank said essentially the same thing in a report in October last year. It expected remittances to decline to a total of $33.3 billion in 2020 from $35.2 billion in 2019. At over $33 billion, the hard-earned money of OFWs accounted for around 9 percent of the economy that year.

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Tamares said he remained in the military barracks in the Qatari base until he got his travel papers in December. He couldn’t fly home sooner because his employer held his passport. Thankfully, while waiting for his documents, he continued to receive free accommodation.

Tamares finally flew back to the Philippines on Jan. 4.

But he couldn’t have returned at a worse time for the country, economically speaking.

Deepest plunge

On Thursday, barely three weeks after he flew back to Manila, the government reported a 9.5-percent decline of the economy, its deepest plunge since the end of World War II 75 years ago.

It was largely due to the pandemic. The eruption of Taal Volcano in January 2020 and the series of devastating storms later that year only aggravated a dire situation.

Still, now that he is back home, Tamares says he wants to start anew.

He is looking for work, but he says he also wants to study web development in a vocational school.

He said this is what he had always wanted since he finished computer engineering in 2011.

After losing a lot in 2020 in both his personal and professional life, he said he wants to first give this a try. And then he will return overseas to resume his search for greener pastures.

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TAGS: coronavirus pandemic, joblessness, Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs), Unemployment
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