Incoming Migrant Workers Secretary Ople to start with a ‘system review’

Kaycee Valmonte - Philstar.com
This April 2, 2020, photo shows overseas Filipino workers who were repatriated amid the global coronavirus pandemic.
The STAR / Edd Gumban

MANILA, Philippines — Susan “Toots” Ople is ready to start working on the country’s newest office dedicated to overseas Filipino workers, starting with a “system review” to ensure safety of the workers under their employers.

Ople, former Labor undersecretary under the administration of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and an OFW advocate, has accepted presumptive president-elect Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr.’s invitation to join his cabinet and lead the newly created Department of Migrant Workers.

It was President Rodrigo Duterte who pushed for the establishment of a sole agency to address OFW concerns, a move that critics said would only institutionalize a labor exportation that was only explored as band aid solution during the Marcos era.

In an interview with the ABS-CBN News Channel’s “Headstart” on Tuesday, Ople said she had already met with Marcos Jr. where they discussed “the general direction of where to take the department.”

“We really should make sure that workers protection is paramount and that we also need to balance that because we are a player in the global economy,” Ople said.

“We have to be conscious of the demands of the supply chain, while making sure that labor rights are not compromised in any way,” she added.

Ople would be bringing with her experiences and background leading the Blas F. Ople Policy Center and Training Institute, which is the non-government organization tasked to represent OFWs at the Inter-Agency Council Against Trafficking of the Philippines.

Migrante International, a coalition of migrant organizations across over 20 countries, in a previous study, noted that the Commission on Filipinos Overseas said there are over 10.1 million Filipinos working abroad

Filipinos have long taken employment opportunities in other countries to better support their families through sending back money. However, going abroad for the prize of being able to provide comes with a price.

OFWs have faced issues such as illegal recruitment, employer abuse, and underrepresentation. 

What awaits

Gabriela Philippines, a women’s rights group, previously noted that there were 5,000 documented cases of women migrant workers who experienced abuse while working abroad, adding that the actual number may be underreported. 

And before some are even deployed, cases involving drug trafficking laced with illegal recruitment are also common experiences of migrant workers. 

Ople said she wants to have a “systems review” for employers.

“I want to review all the systems in place — why is it difficult for good employers to get Filipinos in the same way that bad employers sometimes, they even have an easier time to get Filipino workers,” Ople said. 

Meanwhile, migrant workers organizations have also called on the government to remove requirements for those wanting to work overseas, saying this has added to their list of expenses. 

READ: Mandatory Pag-IBIG payments an additional burden for OFWs — groups

The department was signed into law in December last year with the goal of streamlining the government’s services for OFWs, merging the functions of seven government offices catering to OFWs that includes the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration.

Ople served as a resource person when congress was mulling the establishment of the department.

Being the first at the helm, Ople would have to ensure this streamlining would work, as well as make sure that there would be policy coherence that the DMW aims to have. Its creation also aimed to bring services closer to their stakeholders — establishing regional and provincial offices. 

But on top of that, the newly created department does not yet have a budget this year. 

READ: Duterte out to bloat gov't with undermanned, underfunded agencies

Ople herself noted that to be able to qualify for next year’s government appropriations act, the department would need implementing rules and regulations, a staffing pattern approved by the Department of Budget and Management, and an approved budget proposal. 

Still, Ople is determined to start putting in the work.

“Nothing stops us from working with the agencies already existing and putting together a team that would segway into the team of the department,” Ople said.

‘Labor migration is here to stay’

Asked about the labor export policy that began in the 1970s, Ople said “we cannot deny that labor migration is here to stay.” 

Remittances are considered pillars of economic strength for the Philippines' consumption-driven economy, as money sent home by migrant Filipinos helps increase the spending capacity of their families here.

Likewise, remittances are also crucial sources of dollars for the country. In 2021, remittances amounted to $31.42 billion, expanding 5.1% compared to the 2020 haul. The collections slightly missed the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas' forecast of 6% growth, but BSP Governor Benjamin Diokno said he hopes remittances would rise this year.

"We are all part of the global supply chain,” Ople said. “People go where the jobs are, people go where their families will be financially sustained and resilient."

Ople said she also wanted to “change the narrative of the OFW.” Migrant Filipino workers have long been called “new heroes” for choosing to leave the country, a narrative which has been criticized for romanticizing what they go through.

She said OFWs are often treated as a “welfare case.” 

“I would like them to leave [the country] as dignified as possible, that they know it’s an informed choice, not a rash decision. It’s an informed choice to be made together with the family,” Ople said.

“What we want is all of us are architects of our own economic recovery.”

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