By Ben Garcia

KUWAIT: Kuwaiti employers and workers are complaining that flights to the Philippines have been canceled without notice. The dropped flights create a major problem for domestic helpers and other Filipino workers who show up at the airport, with their residencies already canceled, ready to return home.

Sami, a Kuwaiti employer, took his housemaid this week to Kuwait airport for a flight to Dubai - the first leg of her journey home. At the airport however, both sponsor and worker were surprised to find that the flight had been canceled without notice. "I received no information or notice about the cancelation. So at 3 am, I took my housemaid to the airport for her scheduled flight, but when we reached there, they said the flight was canceled," Sami said. "This is improper; the only thing I heard from the airline is that this wasn't the only flight that was canceled, and no explanation was given," he said.

Mila, the Filipino domestic helper, said her family expected her to return to Manila, but because of the cancelation, she doesn't know when she will now get a flight home. "Thank God my boss managed to extend my visa, so I am safe. I will go back to my employer's house and wait for the next flight," she said.

Earlier in the week, the Philippines' national carrier informed passengers via social media that some of its flights to and from Dubai were cancelled due to government restrictions in Manila. As of Oct 30, the Philippine government has placed 88 countries on a yellow list. The yellow list includes Egypt, Kuwait, Oman, United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, as well as other states in the Middle East.

All fully vaccinated Filipinos returning from yellow-list countries must quarantine, free of charge, upon arrival. They will be released from the quarantine facilities only when they receive a negative result of a test taken on their fifth day in the country. They must then remain in home quarantine for an additional seven days.

Already, inbound passengers are limited to 2,500 per day, according to travel agents who book flights to the Philippines. The quota system limits how many Filipinos can return to their home country and is directly impacting nationals flying in from the Middle East. As a result, airlines are canceling flights. This week, the Manila-Dubai-Cebu flight on Oct 31 and Manila-Dubai-Manila flights on Nov 1 and 2 were canceled.

"We urgently appeal to the Philippine and Dubai authorities to work towards resolving the situation so that we may again be able to operate our planned schedule of flights to and from Dubai and make use of all our seats onboard each flight, for the best interests of our passengers," the airline said in a Facebook post. The airline said all affected passengers are given the option to rebook their flight, convert their ticket into a travel voucher, or get a refund.

"I cannot imagine that our flights are still limited to a few, when here in Kuwait we only have 12 new cases. Other GCC countries are also down to a few cases, so why hasn't the list of countries been updated? We should be green by now, not yellow," said a Filipino in Kuwait hoping to return home. "We already have several problems, including the quarantine requirement. Now flights and expensive air tickets are also part of our suffering," she said.

When contacted for comment, a Philippine Embassy official who spoke on the condition of anonymity admitted receiving complaints about canceled flights. Kuwait Times also asked the official how many Filipinos in Kuwait have been affected by the cancelation of flights. "There are probably quite a few, since airlines are only allowing 35 passengers on board. That is why we are arranging special flights via Kuwait Airways, because if the Philippines allows them, the remaining seats of the aircraft can be filled at a special rate. So instead of paying KD 600 plus, passengers only pay half the price," the embassy source added.

Special flights are arranged by the Philippine Labor Office in Kuwait with the consent of its Department of Labor and Employment through the Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF) against COVID-19, to provide distressed workers cheaper tickets. The Philippines relies heavily on remittances from nationals abroad. Remittances to the Philippines rose 6 percent in the first seven months of 2021, compared to the same period last year, with the bulk of transfers coming from the Middle East, which is home to more than 2 million Filipino workers.

The Central Bank of the Philippines reported remittances from overseas Filipinos reached $3.18 billion in July, resulting in a cumulative total of $19.78 billion since the beginning of 2021. Filipino migrant workers number more than 10 million and contribute 9.66 percent to the country's total GDP through their remittances.