MANILA (UPDATE) - Saudi Arabia wants the Philippines to bring home the remains of 282 Filipinos there, including 50 who succumbed to the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello said on Sunday.
In an interview on TeleRadyo, Bello said Saudi King Salman gave the Philippines 72 hours for the repatriation of the cadavers, but Manila would opt to bury the COVID-19 fatalities there.
The agency and the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration will charter 3 flights for the remaining bodies, he said.
Sen. Richard Gordon, who chairs the Philippine Red Cross, said the OWWA conveyed to him the concern about the cadavers as well, and the need to repatriate some 5,000 Filipinos there who lost their jobs.
"Kaya susulat ako kay Prince Abdullah na Chairman ng Red Crescent ng Saudi Arabia. At ipagdasal ninyo na sana makuha natin, matulungan tayo, at mapauwi yung mga taong iyan," Gordon said on TeleRadyo.
Malacañang also expressed its deepest condolences to the families and loved ones of the 282 OFWs who died in Saudi Arabia.
"The Palace commiserates with the families and loved ones of the 282 overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) who died in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Concerned agencies of the government have already been directed to extend assistance to their families," Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque said in a statement.
He also said the remains of the 50 OFWs who died due to COVID-19 related illnesses will be buried in Saudi Arabia, while the rest will be brought back to the Philippines.
Roque, likewise, said concerned government agencies have already been directed to extend assistance to the families of those who died.
Bello said that while he refuses to dismiss reports about jobless Filipinos in Saudi resorting to scavenging as fake news, OFWs there who need food, medicines and other necessities are being cared for by the Filipino community.
"In the meantime, hindi namin pwedeng pabayaan yung ating mga OFWs. 'Pag walang pagkain, kailangan binibigyan natin ng pagkain yan. And we are doing this through the Philippine community. Sila ang tumutulong sa pagbigay ng pagkain, toiletries, pati yung medisina... face masks... Binibigay natin through the Philippine community," Bello said.
(In the meantime, we cannot neglect our OFWs. If they have no food, we need to provide food for them. And we are doing this through the Philippine community. They help us in the distribution of food, toiletries, medicines, face masks... We give those out through the Philippine community.)
"Kaya nga, ang sabi ko, kung may nagrereklamo na nangangalkal ng basura, dapat ang magsabi n'yan yung Philippine community, kasi sila ang namamahala sa lahat ng mga OFWs natin," he added.
(That's why, I said, if there's anyone complaining that they are already scouring trash, it should come from the Philippine community, because they are overseeing our OFWs there.)
Bello said there were some 400 OFWs from two different employers who, for a time, did not get their salary. "But, upon representation of our Labor Attache in March this year, they have received their unpaid salaries."
Bello also belied claims that a Philippine labor official in Saudi Arabia cursed at Filipino migrant workers who called out the agency for lack of assistance during the pandemic.
The said labor official is in quarantine after he and six other staff contracted COVID-19, Bello said.
"Hindi naman pwede magmura yun, naka-quarantine," Bello said.
(He could not have cursed because he's in quarantine.)
Bello said more than 56,000 OFWs have already been repatriated from different countries, of whom, some 40 percent are land-based workers.
Another group of nearly 17,000 are expected to arrive until the end of this month after securing their necessary documents, although the figure could change if others also complete their respective papers for repatriation. They belong to the estimated 95,000 OFWs who have expressed intention to return home but remain stranded overseas, the labor chief said.
Bello said some 191,000 OFWs, meanwhile, have opted to stay in their respective areas, especially those in Europe, in the Americas and in Canada.
As of Saturday, the Philippines has tallied 6,140 cases of COVID-19 cases abroad, of which, 3,944 are in the Middle East and Africa.
Domestically, the Philippines has so far recorded 29,400 cases of the new strain of the virus, with 7,650 recoveries and 1,150 fatalities.