Duterte wants speedy creation of OFW agency stuck for funding woes

Kristine Joy Patag (Philstar.com) - October 27, 2020 - 10:35am

MANILA, Philippines (UPDATE 1 12:21 p.m.) — President Rodrigo Duterte wants Congress to accelerate the passage of a bill creating a sole agency to handle migrant worker concerns, a proposal stuck at the Senate over issues of funding and treatment of workers in agencies bound to get killed by the measure.

“I’d like to hurry up Congress on this one of my proposals during the campaign period was the creation of Overseas Filipino (department),” Duterte said in a public address aired Tuesday morning.

The proposal for a stand-alone department for migrant workers is contained under Senate Bill 202, authored by Senator Christopher Lawrence “Bong” Go, Duterte’s former aide. It has been pending before the Senate labor committee since getting filed in July 2019 despite getting quick approval from the Lower House.

The bill’s advance at the upper chamber has been hampered by "issues (that) are yet to be settled," Senate President Vicente Sotto III said in a text message. While he did not go into specifics, he said these issues concerned the labor department and its attached agencies, Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) and Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA).

As it is, the priority legislation would abolish POEA and OWWA, as well as three other agencies whose functions are eyed to be performed by the proposed department. Senator Joel Villanueva, labor committee chair hearing the bill, said in a statement the measure's provisions are still getting refined "to ensure seamless services to overseas Filipinos."

Offhand, SB 202 is creating a big agency to handle OFW affairs so absorbing workers from agencies that will be shut down may not be a problem. But Sotto said the government has also prioritized another bill to reduce government size and save costs, and therefore these two legislations would need to be studied hand in hand.

“We are looking at the right-sizing bill in the Senate that needs to be finalized,” he said in a text message.

Despite prioritizing a smaller government in paper however, Duterte, in his own words, appeared to be moving in opposite direction. Apart from an OFW agency, the Chief Executive said on Tuesday he also wants a separate office to handle seafarer affairs because of “so many international laws.”

He promised migrant workers: “There will be a more thorough review on policy for your protection and that somebody should look after you.” There is currently no pending legislation on this agenda.

Where is the budget?

Under SB 202, the single OFW department headed by a secretary would be elevated to a Cabinet position, with nine undersecretaries also getting appointed. On top of that, regional offices as well as “OFW centers” will be established in embassies, with the latter serving as “one-stop shop” for migrant worker needs. 

There will also be separate “OFW Malasakit Center” which is also defined as a one-stop shop, but this time in provinces. Some so-called designated task forces would also be formed. These offices from top to bottom would require manpower, all of which will be paid for by taxpayers’ money. 

It is for this matter that Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez III has voiced concerns over the passage of Go’s bill in its present version. In a position paper early this year, the finance chief said he “cannot support” the measure without a definite funding source.

“This will contradict the cash management principles of the national government, as well as the one-fund concept for government funds,” Dominguez said in his letter to Villanueva at the time.

Already, the government is having difficulty funding a new housing department created in 2019. Senators have decried the measly P3.98 billion budget proposed for the newly-created body, which if passed as is, would account for just 0.08% of the P4.5-trillion outlay for 2021.

Apart from the OFW department, the Duterte administration has also called for the establishment of a separate department for disaster response, bills on which had been passed at various levels in Congress.

Having an OFW department also appears to run counter to the government’s ultimate goal of bringing over 2 million migrant workers home. Concerns had also been raised on whether a dedicated agency would indicate the Philippines recognizes a labor export policy, something which has been denied over the past decades.


Editor's note: Added Senator Villanueva's comments.

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