In BVI, Pandemic Hits Filipinos Hard

With ‘bayanihan’ spirit, community helps out

Filipinos began moving to the British Virgin Islands in large numbers in the late 2000s. They quickly developed a reputation for participating in community events like the International Night at the New Life Baptist Church on Tortola, shown above in 2013. As in much of the world, such events are now on hold because of the pandemic. Photo: FREEMAN ROGERS

As Florenda Ruffell-Smith remembers it, the Filipino boom in the British Virgin Islands began in the late 2000s with four accountants hired to work in the territory’s bustling financial services industry.

“That started a domino effect where other companies would ask for Filipinos,” said Ms. Ruffell-Smith, the long-time president of the Filipino Association of the BVI. “That’s how it started really: those four accountants that came here, and it just multiplied.”

Since then, the BVI’s Filipino community has grown rapidly to an estimated 800-plus people, making it one of the largest contingents of foreign workers in a United Kingdom territory where about half the population of some 30,000 is made up of expatriates who otherwise hail mostly from the Caribbean, the United Kingdom and the United States. 

Now, many Filipinos are among the BVI expatriates who have been hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic.

“It is very challenging because a lot of them have lost jobs,” said Ms. Ruffell-Smith, a registered nurse and aesthetician. “It’s not just the Filipinos, but a lot of the Filipinos have been affected, especially in the hospitality industry.”

The pandemic has virtually shut down the BVI’s tourism sector, which employs about one in four workers, and many expatriates have seen their lives fall apart quickly in their adopted home. It is unclear when the industry will revive: Though the borders have reopened to nationals, no date has been set to welcome back visitors, and the uncertainty has been exacerbated by a recent resurgence of Covid-19 in August after more than two months with no new confirmed cases.

After the start of the pandemic, Filipino waiter Jojo Busto saw his work schedule cut to about one day a week.

“It’s really tough for now,” said the 40-year-old, who works in a seaside hotel.

Mr. Busto moved to the BVI the year before it was devastated by Hurricane Irma in 2017, and he decided to stay and help rebuild. The tourism industry was ravaged then, too, but it rebounded quickly, and by early this year visitor-arrival numbers were finally approaching pre-Irma levels.

Then they fell to zero overnight when the borders closed in late March, and a full lockdown followed with a 24-hour-a-day curfew for about three weeks in April.

The blow was hard for Mr. Busto and his wife, both of whom came to the BVI in large part to earn money to support their two children, 11 and 15, who stayed behind in the Philippines.

His wife has been able to keep working a few days a week, he said, and they have moved into a smaller apartment.

“Maybe our salary is just enough for the expenses,” he added, “but it’s really tough.”

In spite of the difficulties, they don’t plan to return to the Philippines, which is currently battling one of the worst outbreaks in Southeast Asia.

“It’s really, really hard in the Philippines for now compared to here,” he said. 

Other BVI Filipinos decided to return home in spite of the dire situation there, but they struggled to find a way. 

Onlookers at the International Night at the New Life Baptist Church on Tortola, 2013. Photo: Freeman Rogers

When the Filipino Association took an informal census during the April lockdown, more than 50 of around 700 respondents said they wanted to leave the BVI, where the cost of living is far higher than in the Philippines. But global travel restrictions mean that flying to the other side of the world is unusually expensive if not impossible.

Many BVI Filipinos don’t have much savings because they typically send most of their earnings back home, and they were caught off guard when they were suddenly laid off in a territory with no established unemployment program, according to Ms. Ruffell-Smith.

“We keep telling them, ‘You shouldn’t send everything, just in case,’ but that’s what happens,” she said. “And when this thing came, it has been very challenging for them because they ran out of money to pay their rent, so some of them have to borrow money so they can pay their rent.”

The BVI government started offering temporary unemployment benefits in early June, but the program stopped accepting applications after about six weeks, and many laid-off workers said they never received aid.

In July, the Philippines government stepped in, providing two flights to repatriate a total of 36 Filipinos free of charge, Ms. Ruffell-Smith said, adding that most who wanted to leave were able to do so.

But because of the recent surge in Covid-19 cases, a new night-time curfew is now in effect, and many businesses have been ordered to close again— including construction firms and others that employ high numbers of Filipinos.

If such restrictions continue, Ms. Ruffell-Smith believes more Filipinos will need to return home. But it may not be easy.

“The embassy is saying that they don’t have the budget; they’re out of budget now,” she explained.

Meanwhile, other areas of the world are experiencing the same problem.

“If they have to do that all over the world, how many Filipinos are there all over the world?” she explained, adding, “Being on an island like this and being far from other airports — and the amount of Filipinos that want to go home — it’s going to be very, very expensive.”

The Philippines is one of the world’s leading exporters of labor. An estimated 10 million of its more than 100 million citizens work abroad, and the $31 billion they send home each year accounts for about ten percent of the country’s gross domestic product.

But until relatively recently, few had come to the BVI. When Ms. Ruffell-Smith moved here with her British husband in 1988, she knew of only one other Filipino in the islands. In the succeeding years, a handful came to work at a resort and a few others at a car dealership, but it wasn’t until the late 2000s that the population exploded.

Today the BVI’s Filipinos are not only financial professionals like accountants and lawyers, but hospitality workers, doctors, laborers, construction workers, mechanics, domestic workers and others.  Ms. Ruffell-Smith attributes the quick growth to word of mouth about the opportunities here — perhaps aided by a tropical climate similar to the Philippines’ — as well as the workers’ good reputation among BVI employers. 

Mariz Mejares learns to make a sushi roll at Pearl of the Orient restaurant in Road Town, the capital of the British Virgin Islands. She started working there about two weeks before a Covid-19-related lockdown closed all businesses for nearly a month starting in late March. The restaurant has since reopened, but business is slow because the territory’s borders remain closed to tourists. Photo: FREEMAN ROGERS

“Filipinos are hard workers: smart and respectful,” she said, adding, “We just follow rules.”

Mariz Mejares, who came in early 2019, started a new job as a kitchen assistant in a sushi restaurant shortly before the government started enacting strict curfew restrictions in late March.

“I just worked two weeks and then the lockdown started,” she said. “So I [had] nothing to do: just stay home.”

Ms. Mejares since returned to her job: Though the restaurant relies on tourists, it also has a strong local clientele, and it reopened sooner than many other food businesses when lockdown restrictions were gradually lifted in May. Business at the restaurant has been slow, but her husband is a nurse at the local hospital, and he was able to continue working even through the lockdown. 

Since the start of the pandemic, BVI Filipinos who kept their job — including many in the financial services industry who were able to continue working remotely during the recent lockdown — have helped others who were less fortunate.

“We have what we call bayanihan,” Ms. Ruffell-Smith said. “It’s a traditional act of kindness and helping each other. Everybody comes together and helps. That’s a very traditional thing.”

That spirit was particularly important in mid-April when a 52-year-old Filipino domestic worker with Covid-19 died in the territory’s hospital. To date, she has been the only Covid-19 death in the territory, which has confirmed 26 cases in total.

“That was a big blow to us,” Ms. Ruffell-Smith said. “Everybody kind of came together as well to help each other and console each other.”

The pain was exacerbated by xenophobic comments posted on social media after a government minister incorrectly implied that the victim had delayed seeking medical attention. 

“That made the Filipinos a little scared, … but the government was very good at pacifying it right away,” Ms. Ruffell-Smith said. “I think it’s a part of our culture that we cling to each other during times like this.” Following the strong reaction, the government quarantined residents of the apartment complex where the victim had lived and tested several of her neighbours, many of whom were Filipinos.

One of them, welder Anthony Despabeladero, now carries in his wallet the certificate he received when he was released from quarantine after testing negative.

“Some people were afraid of people there,” he said, adding that he is quick to produce his certificate and tell them, “I am negative.”

Mr. Despabeladero, who came to the BVI in July 2019 after working in the Middle East for several years, was able to return to work after about a month of interruption due to the April lockdown restrictions.

Two of his friends, however, weren’t so lucky: Both lost their jobs, one as a tourism driver and the other at Scrub Island Resort, a major property that announced in April that it was furloughing nearly 90 percent of its approximately 300 staff members.

Ms. Ruffell-Smith said the pandemic is likely to shrink the BVI Filipino population substantially, especially since government officials have expressed reluctance to grant more work permits to foreigners when so many of the territory’s own citizens are also out of work.

“I think there’s going to be more that’s going to be leaving, and people realizing that there isn’t much work,” she said.

Others, however, plan to stick around as long as they can. After moving here in 2015, Mark Hernandez, who handles cargo shipments for one of the largest supermarkets in the territory, survived Hurricane Irma, and he doesn’t plan on leaving anytime soon.

“We still have to keep on supplying the food for the people, so we have to be in operation,” he said of the supermarket. “We still have the same job, but not like a hundred percent.” 

Several of his family members live in BVI, including his father, brother and several cousins, many of whom work in the same supermarket. But his wife lives in the Philippines with their 11-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son.

“My family there is good, but seeing what I’m seeing on the news is happening in the world [and in] my country, I would rather stay here, because I’m still earning money in here to send to my family to keep them still good over there,” he said.

He added that he believes Filipinos are resourceful and skilled at overcoming challenging circumstances.

“It’s really hard these days because of what the pandemic did to us, but Filipinos strong,” he said. “Filipino are everywhere. Filipinos can find ways to live.”

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