MANILA – The Philippine government should have finished its assessment first of the situation in the Middle East before abruptly halting deployment of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) to Qatar following the tiny kingdom’s isolation by seven of its neighbors, a migrant workers advocacy group said Wednesday.
“We were surprised at the abrupt decision to suspend the deployment of OFWs to Qatar to give way to an assessment of the situation. It is usually the other way around,” said Susan “Toots” Ople, former labor undersecretary.
At the same time, the Blas F. Ople Policy Center, a non-profit organization that assists distressed OFWs, advised more than a million Filipino workers in the Middle East to be guided by a popular slogan featured in posters and coffee mugs worldwide.
“Keep calm and carry on,” was the advice given by Ople, as tensions in the Middle East escalated due to the diplomatic row between Qatar and Arab and Islamic countries led by Saudi Arabia. Accusing Qatar of being too soft on terrorism, the Saudi government – joined by the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt, and later by Libya, Yemen and the Maldives – severed diplomatic ties with Doha, and blocked flights to the tiny kingdom.
Qatar has vehemently denied allegations it was abetting or enabling terrorist groups, saying it was the victim of a terrible disinformation drive.
Qatar hosts the US’ largest base in the Middle East, which hosts some 11,000 American troops, and from which most of the air strikes against the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria have been mounted.
‘Just focus on your work’
The popular slogan “Keep calm and carry on” first appeared on a motivational poster produced by the British government in 1939 to raise the morale of the British public during the beginning of the Second World War.
Ople said that the diplomatic crisis does not involve foreign workers and OFWs are advised to focus on their work and refrain from posting any messages that may be perceived as political in nature.
The labor advocate expressed confidence in the resilience and good judgment of Filipinos in Qatar. “No one else is more knowledgeable about the prevailing conditions in Qatar other than our own OFWs who have been quietly living and working there for several years.”
The tiny state of Qatar, Ople said, has massive foreign reserves and one of the highest per capita incomes in the region.
She said the labor department’s move to suspend the deployment of overseas Filipino workers to Qatar caught OFWs and other stakeholders by surprise.
“We were surprised at the abrupt decision to suspend the deployment of OFWs to Qatar to give way to an assessment of the situation. It is usually the other way around,” Ople said.
250,000 OFWs in Qatar
The Ople Center observed that more than 250,000 OFWs in Qatar benefit from stable jobs and no untoward incident involving OFWs has been reported since Monday when four countries announced its diplomatic break with the tiny oil-rich nation.
She stressed that the conflict between Qatar and neighboring countries such as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain is being waged through diplomatic means, and can still be resolved through diplomacy.
“The best and most reasonable approach would be for the DFA and DoLE to come up with a joint assessment of the situation in Qatar and submit a unified plan of action to the Office of the President for approval,” Ople said, adding that such inter-department coordination would enhance policy coherence and a well-coordinated plan.
The labor advocate said that fears of food riots breaking out also appear to be unfounded considering that Qatar has massive foreign reserves that would enable it to do bulk purchases of food and other basic necessities from countries other than Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
She commended Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III for his good intentions in taking a pro-active role in protecting Qatar-bound OFWs.
Disagrees with suspension order
The OFW advocate, however, said she respectfully disagrees with the suspension order.
“Government response should be calibrated and commensurate to the realities on the ground. So far, the OFWs in Qatar that we have talked to are saying that nothing much has changed in their daily routines,” Ople said.
The daughter of the late Foreign Affairs Secretary Blas Ople also expressed concern that the suspension order issued by DoLE during the early days of the crisis would be remembered by the Qatar government long after the diplomatic impasse had been resolved.
“On the second day of the diplomatic row, we were the first and only labor-sending country that suspended the deployment of its workers to Qatar. That makes us pretty memorable. It is therefore imperative that we make it clear through diplomatic channels that the suspension order is but a precautionary, temporary and purely welfare-oriented measure,” Ople said.