Some overseas Filipinos believe the Department of Migrant Workers and Overseas Filipinos (DMWOF) is redundant and would only become a new cash cow for unscrupulous government officials
By Henri Abenis – Macahilo
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s newly signed law creating a new department tasked to implement all policies protecting the welfare of has sparked criticisms from citizens in the Philippines and abroad.
The creation of the new agency is one of Mr. Duterte’s campaign promises during the 2016 presidential elections to the 2.2 million overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) who are often referred to as “modern-day heroes” for contributing billions of dollars to the Philippine economy.
On 30 December 2021, Mr. Duterte signed the high priority bill into law during a ceremony inside the presidential palace in Malacañang attended by lawmakers.
When fully implemented, the Department of Migrant Workers Act will transform the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) into the Department of Migrant Workers and Overseas Filipinos (DMWOF), with the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) as an attached agency.
The functions of the following offices under existing departments would be merged and transferred under the DMWOF:
- National Reintegration Center under the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA)
- All Philippine Overseas Labor Offices under the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE)
- International Labor Affairs Bureau under DOLE
- National Maritime Polytechnic under DOLE
- Office of the Undersecrertary for Migrant Workers’ Affairs under the Department of Foreign Affairs
- International Social Services Office under the Department of Social Welfare and Development
- CFO under the Office of the President
Some politicians and labour migration stakeholders say that with the establishment of the new agency, all the needs of OFWs will be taken care of.
Labour Attaché John Rio Bautista of the Philippine Overseas Labour Office (POLO) in Dubai said the new agency will set up a migrant workers office as its operating arm that would address the concerns of OFWS, irrespective of their status.
“Migrant Workers Office is a one-stop-shop. It will be composed of the POLO, ATN of DFA and Social Welfare Attaché of DSWD,” Mr. Bautista said.
“Given this, there will no longer be any distinction as to whether the worker needing assistance is documented or not and to what office they should request assistance.”
The Migrant Workers Office will also manage AKSYON (Agarang Kalinga at Saklolo para sa mga OFW na Nangangailangan [immediate help and support for OFWs in need]) Fund, an emergency fund that will be used for the legal and other assistance to Filipinos workers abroad.
However, some OFWs are not at all optimistic with the outcome of the creation of the new department. Many of them believe it to be redundant and would only become a new cash cow for unscrupulous government officials.
At a February 2021 Senate hearing on the bill to create the new agency, the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) said that at least PHP1.109 billion (US$21 million) is needed to fund the initial operation of the new department.
The PHP507 million (US$9.8 million) budget for POEA is expected to be transferred to the DMWOF.
Rhoderick Ople, president of OFW Watch – Italy, one of the largest Filipino organisations in Europe, believes that Filipinos working overseas do not need another inutile agency with staff who are unwilling to give them necessary assistance.
“Here in Italy, Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) officials have never listened to our complaints. They refuse to sit-down and have a dialogue with us,” said Mr. Ople.
“Other problems that we foresee with the new OFW Department are having incompetent political appointees, more expense for the government, bureaucracy, privatisation and commercialisation in the system like the Passport Renewal Centre under the VLS-DFA contract.”
What the OFs need are more progressive bilateral agreements between the Philippines and sending countries to protect their welfare, especially in the Middle East, Hong Kong and Eastern Europe, said Mr. Ople.
He also added that the newly signed bill is not consistent with the Duterte administration’s promise of giving Filipinos better opportunities in the home country so that they will no longer be forced to seek jobs abroad.
Dubai-based entrepreneur and social media influencer, Camilla Iman, strongly opposes the creation of a new agency for OFWs, saying it will eventually end up as a seat of corruption.
“What’s the purpose of creating another government agency that is doing the same functions and mandates of POEA? It is a clear duplication and will [only cause]more confusion to the OFWs and OFs,” said Ms. Iman.
“I’d rather that they add a new section within the POEA than creating a whole new department that entails more government expenses and burden. I’m sure many will be interested to handle this new agency to get their hands on the millions from the country’s treasury,” she added.
A director at a Manila-based research centre dedicated to the study of migration in the Asia-Pacific region, meanwhile, has reservations on the timing of the passage and signing of the bill.
“The timing of the passage of this law some six months before the election does raise the possibility of courting the votes of OFWs for the candidates supported by Duterte,” said the migration expert who requested anonymity.
The expert who has a longstanding experience in researching migration and social change in Asia, particularly the Philippine context, perceives the creation of a new agency for Filipinos migrant workers as Mr. Duterte’s “active reaching out to OFWs during his presidency”.
“I think it is President Duterte’s way to make good on his promise to OFWs; of wanting to be remembered by OFWs as the president who has their interests at heart,” she said.
“He does enjoy support – and adulation – from OFWs. It does not matter whether the department is needed. There were no studies done on whether the gaps in the existing institutional arrangement could be met by a single department.”
Senator Joel Villanuava, co-sponsor of the bill creating the new agency, said the OFWs still managed to remit US$33.2 billion last year, equivalent to one-third of the present PHP4.506 trillion (US$91.65 billion) national budget, despite the economic slowdown caused by the pandemic.
Philippine government data showed that that are some 2.2 million Filipino migrant workers in 2019 but about half a million have been displaced by the Covid-19 pandemic and were repatriated.
Henri Abenis-Macahilo is the editor-in-chief of Rights Corridor. She is also the UAE bureau chief of Philippine-based news portal, NewsLinePH.