Passport news causes anxiety among OFWs in Singapore

Posted at 04/12/14 10:29 PM

SINGAPORE (3rd UPDATE) - An announcement by the Philippine embassy here explaining the phase-out of green and maroon Philippine passports has gained so much attention it has been read at least 1.2 million times on Facebook, and attracted comments and discussions from Filipinos here, in Kuwait, Australia and Canada.

The post on the Philippine Embassy-Singapore's Facebook account has been making the rounds among Filipino workers' social media accounts, and has caused anxiety among this city-state's Filipino household workers.

Most of these helpers can only take days-off on Sundays. Some of them raised problems making an appointment with the Philippine embassy for passport renewal after the consulate moved its operations to weekdays only.

The embassy's announcement clarified a Department of Foreign Affairs announcement that the green and maroon passports shall only be useful until their indicated expiration dates. These will be replaced by a dark maroon passport bearing a microchip in front.

What appeared to have confused many is the warning that those who might travel internationally within the next six months might want to check if their passports are expiring within the period. This is because other countries have restrictions on passports with only six months of validity.

The announcement on Facebook reportedly gained traction because of Filipinos in other countries, not necessarily those from Singapore.

Many shared the embassy's Facebook post and had it on their walls, like "Dina", a household worker of several years here.

Passport renewal comes with a price

Dina renewed her passport in 2008, and then again last year. During both times, she went through an agency which took care of renewing her passport. Dina did not have an embassy-certified employment contract. The document is a requirement for passport renewal for household service workers (HSW).

"For HSWs who left the Philippines as undocumented workers because they were not processed by POEA, they must submit this Employment Contract for verification... and at the same time pay OWWA & Pag-ibig membership fees at the Embassy's Labor Section...," the embassy says in its site. The OWWA and Pag-IBIG memberships, along with the authentication of the documents, would cost a total of SGD110 (about PHP3,850)

Dina said she had to renew her passport through an agency, instead of doing it personally, to hasten things.

"'Di po kasi kumpleto ‘yung documents ko noon... Kaya nag-agency na ako kasi personal appearance na lang ako at take photo. Agency na lalakad lahat na wala akong dokumento at sila nakipag-appointment sa Philippine Embassy," Dina said.

But this came with a stiff price: The embassy website says a new passport or its renewal costs SGD102 (about PHP3,507). To go through an agency, the cost is SGD350 (about PHP12,250).

"'Yung SGD102, bayad ng renew ng passport kapag 'yung tao po mismong nasa passport ang magre-renew kapag complete po ang dokumento. SGD350 through agency na wala na pong 'daming tanong at 'di po kumpleto ang dokumento," Dina said.

Problems with booking an embassy appointment

Dina said there are also those who find it difficult to book an appointment with the embassy because they do not have Internet connection, through which appointments are made.

The only other way to connect with the embassy is through telephone. But the line to the embassy is also usually swamped with calls which end up being queued. A recorded message in English directs callers back to the embassy’s website for its e-mail addresses and FAQs.

Other Filipinos traced the problem to the issue of Filipinos’ rest days which can't be rescheduled, which prevented them from coming to the embassy during the weekdays.

Most employers – most of whom also work on weekdays -- can only allow their household helpers to have a day-off on Sundays.

Given this, Filipinos may have resorted to coming to the agencies for help in setting the appointment, they said.

A worker in a supermarket said Filipinos liked it when the embassy was open on Sundays and household workers were able to transact with the embassy. Yet, in the same token, embassy workers also have to take days off, she said. “Tao rin naman sila,” she added.

There are about 160,000 Filipinos mostly working in the professional and services sectors of restaurants, IT and banking in Singapore. Forty percent or less are into household services. There are 20,000 more Filipinos in the city-state who are undocumented.

Embassy, netizens respond

On April 13, the Philippine Embassy-Singapore's Facebook account has issued a statement regarding the supposed misunderstanding and denied that their post has caused further anxiety.

The page claimed that while the likes of "Dina" was confused at the announcement, the response were generally positive.

As of April 22, the original post, along with the page and the responses were inaccessible.
However, in a screenshot taken before the post and the page became inaccessible, the Embassy stated: "This is our first time to make this request: kung may natutunan po kayo sa aming facebook page, kahit kaunti, pa-like lamang po nitong post na ito. Paki-share din po sa mga kakilala ninyo."

Netizens, commenting on the response, were quick to call out the supposed "slant" of the article and voiced out their support for the page.