SUBIC BAY FREEPORT — The Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority (SBMA) bristled at claims that it is withholding information about a government plan to bring home repatriated overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) through the Subic Bay Freeport.
SBMA Chairman and Administrator Wilma T. Eisma said on Tuesday the plan to use Subic as gateway for OFWs is not an SBMA initiative, but a program managed by the National Task Force on Returning Overseas Filipinos (NTF-ROF) headed by the Department of Transportation (DOTr) and reinforced by the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA), Philippine Ports Authority (PPA), Department of Tourism (DOT), Office of Civil Defense (OCD), and the Office of the President (OP).
Eisma issued the clarification after a social media post on Sunday by former Olongapo City mayor Rolen Paulino who claimed SBMA has kept the plan under wraps and the mayors of communities around the Subic Freeport, as well as their representatives to the SBMA board of directors were kept in the dark about it.
“If former Olongapo mayor Rolen Paulino is saying that we did not consult them about this plan, then he is promoting disinformation. He is also barking up the wrong tree, and prematurely at that,” Eisma said.
“If ever, he should demand consultation from the DOTr and other agencies because this project is national government-driven, not SBMA-driven. The SBMA is but a tiny cog in this big machine that is undertaking the program,” she pointed out.
In his post addressed to residents of communities near the Subic Bay Freeport, Paulino stirred opposition to the OFW repatriation program by raising doubts on government transparency and rousing local fear of increased Covid-19 transmission.
“May mga lumalabas po na balita na ang SBMA (sic) ay gagawing Covid-19 testing center at launching area ng mga OFW’s at sila ay dadaan sa rapid (sic) at swab test ng Red Cross bago pauuwiin,” said Paulino, who now sits as consultant at the city hall. “Dapat naman tayo ay makunsulta or maipaalam man lang sa atin ang kanilang plano,” he added.
Eisma revealed, however, that as early as April this year, the OWWA and DOT have been talking about OFW repatriation with the tourism departments of both the SBMA and Olongapo City. Records of “group chats” involving the concerned parties would bear this out, she added.
“I will understand if Rolen Sr. did not know about this because he is not the mayor, but I assume that the head of Olongapo tourism reports to the mayor, because my own tourism head reports to me,” the SBMA chief said.
Eisma said she has already advised concerned agencies about the demand for consultation from the former mayor. “However, if they would grant consultation, my guess is it would not be the father, but the son, the sitting mayor, whom they would properly contact,” Eisma added, referring to Olongapo City Mayor Rolen Paulino Jr.
Eisma likewise pointed out that Subic is being considered only for any spillover of OFWs being repatriated through the Manila and Clark airports, as the Subic Bay International Airport still has no night-landing capability.
“We’re still working on building that capability, so until then, OFW flights cannot land in Subic and we would only be available for the spillover. If the hotels in Manila, Clark, and Angeles City can no longer keep up with the number of returning OFWs, then that will only be the time that Subic would come in,” she stressed.
At the local level, Eisma said the repatriation plan would still have to be approved by the SBMA board “once the safety protocols are already firm.” The elder Paulino’s wife Cynthia sits in the board as city representative.
Eisma also revealed that OWWA and PPA officials had again called up the SBMA this week to revive the stalled talks, but she had insisted that “the final plans would have to be solid before we agreed.”
She said the same agencies are also discussing the proposal with the Freeport Area of Bataan and the Clark Freeport, as well as the government of Zambales and Bataan, but the discussion “is taking so long precisely because solid safety protocols should be in place.”
Whatever the outcome of the discussions, Eisma said the SBMA would not shirk its duty to help as necessary, citing Pres. Duterte’s order in his recent State of the Nation Address (SONA) for government agencies to help OFW’s who have lost their jobs and returned home due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
“It has been a national pride to call the OFW’s modern-day heroes because of their economic contribution to the country, and it would be a national shame if we should refuse them our help now that they needed it most,” Eisma said.