Dubai: After expressing a strong online protest, Filipinos in the UAE can now heave a sigh of relief after Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has temporarily suspended the mandatory payment of premiums to PhilHealth (Philippine Health Insurance Corporation), presidential spokesperson Harry Roque announced on Monday.
During a virtual press conference from Malacañang Palace in Manila, Roque said President Duterte issued a directive to PhilHealth to make payment voluntary given the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic which has displaced many overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) worldwide.
Roque added OFWs leaving the country are not required to pay PhilHealth premiums for the issuance of their Overseas Employment Certificate (OEC) before they can resume working abroad.
PhilHealth is a government-owned corporation attached to the Philippine Department of Health (DOH) that is mandated to implement the National Health Insurance Program to all Filipinos. It recently issued a circular increasing the premium payments equivalent to around 3% of an OFW’s monthly salary starting this year.
PhilHealth said this was declared in the Universal Health Care Law, which President Duterte signed into law in February last year.
When asked if the increase in payment to PhilHealth will be suspended permanently, Roque said insurance payments are based on actuarial science (based on calculating insurance risks and premiums).
Filipinos in the UAE used social media over the weekend to join their kababayans (compatriots) worldwide in expressing strong opposition to the latest circular. They said it was not only a huge burden for them but the move was also insensitive to their plight in the time of COVID-19 pandemic.
One online petition on secure.avaaz.org garnered close to 200,000 signatures, according to Gabriel John Rimando, founder and president of Dubai-based Filipino Institute, who launched the online campaign.
“OFWs help the Philippine economy afloat by sending billions of pesos as remittances. We sent a record high of $33.5 billion last year and they now they have given as an additional burden – this PhilHealth premium hike - while we’re struggling with the impact of the global health crisis,” Dubai resident Arnel Fernandez told Gulf News.
“This is very unfair to us. We are not using PhilHealth because we already have a UAE insurance. So why are we paying 3 per cent mandatory when we are not benefitting from it. We are so scared that we cannot go back on vacation if we don’t pay PhilHealth insurance. This is highly unjust and is so troubling,” added Sherill D Marcus, 40, a nanny in Dubai for 6 years.
“The implementation of such law does not make sense especially with the current circumstances faced by OFWs around the world. The fact that it ignores OFWs who are currently unemployed and still required them to pay the premium is an outrage,” reiterated Andre Rivera, who works as a communications manager for multinational PR company in Dubai.
A spokesperson for Gabriela-UAE, a group of Filipino expats in the UAE advocating for workers and women’s rights, added: “It is very unfortunate that they call OFWs modern heroes and yet they penalise us with such directives. We urge PhilHealth to reverse this directive as this is unfair and an abuse to our migrant workers.”
Stand up for our rights
Barney Almazar, director at the corporate-commercial department of Gulf Law, said: “OFWs globally were up in arms against PhilHealth’s policy to deduct 3 per cent (and later on 5 per cent) from their monthly salaries. Moreover, according to the circular, OFWs will not be allowed to leave until all contribution and compounded interest are paid.”
“This was a clear violation of our constitutional right to travel. Taxes, which is the lifeblood of the nation, if not paid is not a ground to prevent a person from leaving the Philippines,” Almazar told Gulf News.
“We all want a dependable healthcare. We understand that the membership to such program is crucial. The implementation however, must not be oppressive. We are being held hostage by the very institution that should protect us,” he underlined.
Almazar continued: “With all the hardships OFWs are facing, threatening us of deprivation of our only source of livelihood is unjust. It is contrary to humanity especially during this covid crisis. Social justice dictates that this policy be amended.”
“I encourage my fellow OFWs to stand for their rights. Our voice must be heard loud and clear. We are contributing a lot to the Philippines and we cannot simply be ignored, much more our rights trampled. We don’t demand for any special treatments or recognition as modern day heroes. We only want to get the respect we rightfully deserve,” he underlined.