Experts, govt. officials exchange views on Philippines’ proposed agency for overseas Filipinos


Staff Report (Updated May 11, 2021; 01:50am GMT+1) 

Rights Corridor Dialogues on May 07 has invited Ricardo Casco, former national officer and labour migration specialist at the International Organization for Migration (IOM) – Manila to discuss the proposed establishment of Department of Overseas Filipinos (DOFil), a centralised all-migrant service institution.

“Reorganising Labour Migration Governance in the Philippines: Which Way?” explored the issue of creating DOFil with Rights Corridor managing director and RC Dialogue’s host Froilan Malit, Jr.

Listening in to the one-on-one interview of Mr. Casco, who later shared their own views and comments on the interesting topic, were distinguished personalities both from the Philippine government and non-government organisations and the academia, including Philippine Ambassador to New Zealand, Jesus “Gary” S. Domingo; Philippine Consul General in Dubai and Northern Emirates, Paul Raymund Cortes; Philippine Labour Attache in Dubai and Northern Emirates, Felicitas Bay; Director of the Overseas Filipinos Program at PhilHealth, Chona Yap; former International Labor Organization (ILO) Deputy Regional Director for Asia and the Pacific, Thetis Mangahas; Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of the Philippines, Jean Franco; Development Action for Women Network (DAWN) Executive Director Carmelita Nuqui; Sinapan Samydorai, Regional Coordinator of Taskforce on ASEAN Migrant Workers; Dr. Stefan Rother, researcher and lecturer at the Department of Political Science, University of Freiburg, Germany; Dr. Sophie Henderson, migration policy researcher and environmentalist.

Mr. Casco identified media influence, lack of evidence based engagement and irregular migration as some of the core issues persistently faced by the Philippine state in managing labor migration.

“Migration is a sensitive issue. It is ever a cross-cutting. There are so many cultural ramifications. In many occasions we’ve been so unilateral and that becomes the basis of our regulations. We have so much due public expectations,” said Casco.

Casco stressed that government agencies in the Philippines as well as the diplomatic missions abroad have already been performing their functions well in protecting the rights and welfare of overseas Filipinos that having a new agency is no longer necessary.

“I find it so hard to believe that there are those who perceive that the domestic labour administration needed to be separated from the overseas employment. Overseas employment only happens when your domestic employment fails. And when overseas migrants come home, we need to reintegrate them. How could you separate them?”

Consul General Cortes pointed out that the negative assessment of overseas Filipinos of the services rendered by the mission posts and the Philippine Overseas Labour Offices (POLOs) in general have resulted in the conception of  a new migration agency, despite that fact that the Philippines continues to be recognised by other governments to be a good global model in terms of promoting and protecting the rights and welfares of Filipino migrant workers.

“I agree that for a lot of countries let’s say in Dubai, many just look up to the way the Philippines has come up with a system of helping its nationals. The European countries are even very, very surprised of how we have come to terms on how to help (our countrymen) effectively and efficiently, at that,” said Consul General Cortes.

For her part, Labour Attache Bay said that admittedly the existing governmental system needs some fundamental reforms. “Maybe, we need to address the issue of trying to figure what is not working in the current system instead of creating a new department.”

“We also have to put merit in fitness in the job. I guess that is one (reason) why some people criticise or questioned the people in the government. So I think there should also be an “up-skilling” of the people in government should the the DOFil be established for people to fit in their job in DOFil,” said Atty. Bay.

Expressing a strong opinion against the DOFIl creation, Ms. Mangahas, said that the timing is not good. “We are global leaders but leadership is not static. You have to consistently and constantly improve yourselves to be able to retain that leadership position. And I think in recent years, I’m not sure if we have kept the edge when it comes to new programs and new initiatives that are realistic and achievable.”

“At some point, I should say, the true success factor is if we don’t need an overseas employment programme. The fact that it continues to exist, then maybe it’s an unrealistic goal; that you would want it to be smaller rather than bigger at this point in time,” said Ms. Mangahas.

Ms. Nuqui, who is also part of the migrants’ watchdog Philippine Migrants Rights Watch (PMRW), said her groups were among those who opposed the idea of creating a new agency when it was first conceptualised by the Duterte administration in 2016, along with other government departments – Department of Foreign Affairs, Department of Budget and Department of Finance, citing the issue of funding as one of the main concerns.

“The position of the Philippine Migrants Rights Watch is not to have DOFil. For PMRW, we think that if the issue is to improve the coordination of the OFWs between the different (government) departments, then we can always do that. Instead of creating a new one,” stressed Ms. Nuqui.

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The Department of Overseas Filipinos (DOFil) has been authored by Philippine Senator Bong Go under Senate Bill No. 1949, otherwise known as the Department of Overseas Filipinos (DOFil) Act of 2020.

The filing of the DOFil Act in early December of 2020 has been certified as urgent by President Rodrigo Duterte, according to Sen. Go. It is one of the top twenty priority legislations by the House of Congress and the House of Senate this year.

The DOFil will be initially comprised of the Office of the Secretary and four Offices of the Undersecretaries for Administration and Finance; Foreign Employment; Assistance to Overseas Filipinos in Distress; and Policy and International Cooperation and Special Overseas Filipino Concerns.

Once created, the new agency will also subsume the Office of the Undersecretary for Migrant Workers’ Affairs of the Department of Foreign Affairs, Social Welfare Attaches Office under the Department of Social Welfare and Development, International Labor Affairs Bureau under the Department of Labor and Employment, and Commission on Overseas Filipinos.

The Overseas Workers Welfare Administration and the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration will serve as attached agencies of DOFil.

The DOFil Act also aims to implement a one country-team approach of government offices and personnel posted abroad, which means it will require all officials in Philippine diplomatic posts to act together as one team, per country of assignment, in protecting the rights and advancing the welfare of Filipino migrant workers there, with guidance from the DFA and the Philippine Foreign Service Posts.