British envoy: OFWs in the UK safe from Brexit fallout

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines) — Filipinos living and working in the United Kingdom will not be affected by the country’s decision to leave the European Union, the British Ambassador has said.

As the UK continues to assess the extent of changes the so-called “Brexit” would entail, British Ambassador to the Philippines Asif Ahmad took great pains to emphasize continuity and stability.

“I see no change whatsoever in how Filipinos live and work and travel in the United Kingdom,” Ahmad said in a press conference on Monday.

“The 250,000 Filipinos who live in the UK will see zero change in their [immigration] status.”

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Immigration was a flashpoint in the referendum as membership in the EU requires free movement of people across the bloc. The refugee crisis heightened this, with millions fleeing war-torn countries in the Middle East and moving to Europe in search of safety.

With the UK just finding its feet after the global financial downturn in 2008, many Britons feared whether the economy could accommodate the influx of people.

Ahmad stressed, however, that the UK was not closing its doors just yet. He said the country has long been multicultural, and the referendum result shouldn’t be interpreted as one that would make it “a harsh place for foreigners.”

Versatile workforce

The Brexit has also triggered fears of a downturn in the fragile UK economy, since it could lose free market access to the EU — its largest trading partner.

Investors responded to this by pulling out their money since the referendum concluded last Friday. Financial markets across the world lost trillions of dollars and the British pound fell to a 30-year low.

But overseas Filipino workers (OFW) need not worry about their jobs, Ahmad said. OFWs are hired in sectors that are crucial to the UK, regardless of the state of the economy.

“Seafarers from the Philippines are a vital part of our economy. We are an island, seafaring nation. Filipinos have also been strong in the sectors of health and care for the elderly — that is something we value and cherish,” he explained.

Filipinos are also spreading out beyond these “traditional” OFW sectors. They’re finding work in the arts, oil and gas, and engineering, he added.

“There are many, many areas where we see Filipino talent and they compete in the job market well,” he said.

Regardless, Tim Alonso, a Filipino resident in the UK, said many in the Filipino community are worried — especially those who don’t have permanent residency.

“The general idea was that immigration would be gradually tightened … It’s all down to your immigration status,” he said in an interview.

But Alonso was confident the Filipino community would be able to cope.

“We’re versatile. There’s a lot of adaptability in how we work. There’s plenty of areas in the world where a workforce is necessary … Overall, I think we’ll be able to find other places if that will be necessary in the future,” he said.

Keeping commitments

For Alonso, and many others in the UK, much of their anxiety comes from not knowing what will happen next.

The British ambassador admitted the work facing the government is massive. The UK has been a member of the EU for more than 40 years, and much of its political, economic and social framework has been shaped by its membership in the bloc.

“Every single item of law would have to be studied to see whether we will retain its form or tailor it to local needs,” Ahmad said.

He assured, though, that the UK would still stand for the same values and would keep its international commitments.

“The UK is still a member of the United Nations (UN), and we still stand for justice and human rights. We are a firm believer in free trade and we are still a member of the World Trade Organization. We are a member of the NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) and the UN Security Council, so our defence architecture will not be affected,” he listed.

The same holds true for the UK’s relationship with the Philippines, Ahmad said.

Investments of British companies in the Philippines will continue to “grow and grow exponentially” — mostly in the service and power sectors. He even hinted that new deals could be announced in the coming months.

As for development aid, Ahmad said the UK remains committed to assisting the Philippines. He pointed out that it was one of the largest sources of emergency funding after Typhoon Yolanda.

Moreover, its commitment is set in law — 0.7% of the UK’s gross national income is put aside for foreign aid. That will not change because of the Brexit, he said.