By Beting Laygo Dolor, Contributing Editor

Tens of thousands of Filipinos who work in cruise ships and merchant marine fleets have been forced to head home due to the global Covid-19 pandemic and the Philippine government is scrambling to take care of their health needs, as well as their loss of income.

The government admitted last week that an expected 42,000 returning overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) could overwhelm the limited quarantine facilities. The land- and sea-based OFWs are expected to return this May and June.

This number is on top of the 27,000 recent arrivals.

Cabinet Sec. Carlito Galvez Jr., chief implementer of the National Task Force Covid-19, said, “We have a problem with returning OFWs. Our hotels will be overwhelmed.”

More than 20 cruise ships are currently anchored off Manila Bay but their crews are not allowed to head for shore until they have been cleared for coronavirus.

An estimated 80 percent of their junior officers, crew members and workers are believed to be Filipinos. The Philippines has long been the world’s leading supplier of officers, crew and staff – including front office, housekeeping, entertainment and maintenance workers — of the global cruise industry.

Filipinos also work in the merchant marine industry, which includes oil tankers and container ships.

The returning OFWs are forced to undergo a 14-day quarantine before they are allowed to rejoin their families.

On the plus side, due to the near total drop in tourist arrivals, most hotels in Metro Manila and Luzon have near zero occupancies. Some of these hotels are being used to quarantine the returning OFWs.

Some hotel owners have donated rooms for use, either by the frontliners or the returning OFWs. Other hotels have simply shut down for the duration of the lockdown.

The Philippine Coast Guard said returnees have the option to stay in government facilities for free or check in at any Bureau of Quarantine-accredited hotels at their own expense for the 14-day mandatory quarantine.

The most common complaint of the Filipino workers stranded at the cruise ships in Manila Bay is the slow processing of their release. Some have been moored in the ships for more than 14 days, yet they are still expected to undergo a Covid-19 test, then be placed under another 14 days of quarantine once they step on land.

Galvez said Defense Sec. Delfin Lorenzana had “directed the OWWA (Overseas Workers Welfare Administration) and the Marina (Maritime Industry Authority) to immediately release all OFWs who have tested negative.”

As of last week, the Philippine Red Cross tested 22,432 OFWs, 435 were found positive for coronavirus.

Another complaint of the returning OFWs involved the mandatory testing they had to undergo. While the national government initially said that the Health department would conduct the test for free, some arrivals were charged for the test.

The government later clarified that for land-based returnees, the OWWA would pay for the test, while for sea-based workers, the payment would come either from their local personnel sourcing agencies, or from the Maritime Industry Authority.

Non-OFWs returning to the country, according to the Civil Aeronautics Board, must take the test “from among the approved quarantine facilities at their own cost.”

Meanwhile, due to the uncertainty of their employment status, the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (Tesda) is offering free skills training programs to all returning OFWs.

Lasting anywhere from 10 to 38 days, the programs include service engine mechanical components, carpentry, masonry, and processed food production, as well as such languages as Arabic, English, Italian, Japanese, Mandarin and Spanish.