A separate department for OFWs: Should we? - 2 part Blueboard column by Carmela Abao

October 22, 2019


As of this writing, more than 30 bills proposing the creation of a separate department for Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) have been filed in the House of Representatives and the Senate. The proposal is not new.  It was a promise of President Duterte in his election campaign in 2016 but it has not been vigorously pursued until recently, in July 2019, when the President gave a directive to the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) to ensure that the new department is created before the end of the year.  According to President Duterte, this new department was necessary “to protect migrant workers from illegal recruitment”.
Should this proposed legislation be supported?  Should a separate department for OFWs be created? 
In this piece, I present the proposed bills and then lay out the positions of the various stakeholders from government and civil society, as shared during a roundtable discussion (RTD) on September 13, 2019 which I participated in.   The RTD was organized by the Center for Migrant Advocacy – Philippines (CMA) and the Working Group on Migration (WGM) of the Department of Political Science of Ateneo de Manila University (full disclosure:  I am affiliated with both organizations). 
After presenting the various positions, I add my own thoughts on what should be considered in thispolicy debate.
Proposed bills
According to Ellene Sana, Executive Director of the Center for Migrant Advocacy, 34 bills relating to the creation of a separate department of OFWs have been filed in the House of Representatives and 7 bills have been filed in the Senate.   These bills, she claims, are similar in purpose, that is, to create a department that will cater exclusively to OFWs and/or Overseas Filipinos, and their families.    They differ in their salient features, however, particularly with regards the abolition or retention of some agencies, and, the level of elaborateness of migration governance. They also vary in terms of preferred nomenclature. 
Still according to Ms. Sana, the bills can be clustered based on the level of similarity of their proposals.   Of the clusters mentioned by Ms. Sana during the RTD, two clearly stand out. 
Cluster 1:  Department of Migration and Development (DMD).There are at least four bills under this cluster:  SB 141 of Senator Cynthia Villar, HB 526 of DIWA Party List, HB 3313 of Rep. Camille Villar and HB 1439 of Rep. Luis Campos.   The bills propose the following:  creation of a separate department with 1 Secretary, 3 Undersecretaries and 3 Assistant Secretaries, regional offices, one-stop migrant assistance centers, attached agencies OWWA and POEA, an inter-agency council on migration and development and a Special Assistance Revolving Fund of 1 billion PhP.
Cluster 2:  Department of Filipino Workers and Foreign Employment (DOFW) or Department of Overseas Filipinos (DOF).  The proposed bill of Rep. Alan Peter Cayetano, Rep. Laarni Cayetano and Rep. Paolo Duterte (HB02) can be clustered with that of Senator Bong Go (SB 202), Senator Koko Pimentel (SB 92),  and, the ACTS CISParty list (HB 2319) and the  Alona Party list (HB 2850).  All these bills contain a proposal to “abolish” existing attached agencies like the OWWA, POEA, NRCO, CFO, ILAB and to create instead a singular umbrella agency that will address all the issues and concerns of Filipinos abroad.   The bills, however, use different terminologies.  The Bong Go bill uses the word “abolish” while the Cayetano, Cayetano and Duterte bill uses the term “transfer” and the version of the Alona Party list uses “absorb”.
HB02 and SB 202 are most similar in that both propose the creation of Regional Offices, One-Stop OFW Malasakit Centers and OFW Centers in countries of destination.  They also propose billion-peso funds such as an“OFW in distress and assistance fund” (Cayetano, Cayetano and Duterte bill)  or a “special assistance fund” (Bong Go bill). 
According to ACTS CIS Party List Representative Niña Taburanwho attended the abovementioned RTD, “it was hightime” that a DOF “dedicated to our modern day heroes” was created.  The DOLE, she claims, “can only do so much” because “its responsibility is very broad”, covering “both local and overseas workers” and “it has limited resources”.   In its proposed bill, ACTS CIS wants the new department to have a special assistance revolving fund of 1 billion pesos. 
Positions of Government Agencies
Among the line agencies, there is a general consensus that a Department for Overseas Filipinos should be created, in adherence to the Presidential directive, but that some agencies should remain as attached agencies to the new department.
In its draft bill, the DOLE calls for a DOF with POEA, OWWA and NRCO as attached agencies.  To be transferred to the new department are the following offices:  (i) International Labor Affairs Bureau (ILAB), including all Philippine Overseas Labor Offices (POLOs) (ii) Commission on Filipino Overseas, (iii) Office for Social Welfare Attache and (iv) pertinent offices of the Maritime Industry Authority (MARINA). 
According to OWWA Dir. Andrelyn Gregorio, the OWWA adheres to the DOLE position and agrees that the OWWA should remain an attached agency given that the OWWA Act of 2016, RA10801, does not allow for the co-mingling of funds.  The OWWA fund is a private trust fund and should be made separate from operational/departmental funds. 
Under any new set-up, Gregorio claims, there is a need to clarify “how to manage and preserve funds contributed by OFWs and therefore owned by OFWs”.  The OWWA, she further claims, is still “in transition” since it has been only three years since the OWWA Act was passed.  The OWWA, she says, has, in fact, engaged the UP NCPAG to conduct a management audit to review and strengthen “the agency’s human power complement that dates back to the 1980s”.    The OWWA also hopes that the creation of the new department will not lead to the displacement of existing human resources. 
The POEA shares the view of OWWA.  According to POEA Dir. John Rio Bautista, “it is hard to dissolve the POEA and OWWA because they have a unique structure” and “have governing boards representing different sectors including women, the private sector, etc”.   Moreover, Dir. Bautista argues that the purpose of creating a new Department should not be merely to streamline the bureaucracy but to increase personnel and expand jurisdiction.   The POEA and OWWA, he claims,  have been existing since the 1980s with the same personnel complement of around 400-500 (regional offices included) and that said number will not be enough if the new department will include regional offices and provincial and municipal Malasakit Centers. 
Atty. Christopher Lomibao, Committee Secretary of the House of Representatives Committee on Overseas Workers Affairs (COWA), agrees that the points raised by OWWA and POEA need to be addressed in the deliberation of the features of the proposed new department. 
Mr. Ronell Delerio of the Institute of Labor Studies (ILS), meanwhile, is more concerned that government ratifies ILO Convention 181 on Private Employment Agencies. Any reorganization, he says, will have to consider concerns surrounding practices of private recruitment agencies.   Further explanation of this view can be found in Mr. Delerio’s 2016 article on “Participatory Gap Analysis on Convention 181: Towards Enhancing the Global Revolving Door for Overseas Filipino Workers” published in the ILS website. 


Positions of Civil Society Organizations
The positions of civil society organizations on the creation of a new Department for OFWs are more diverse than those of government agencies.
For CMA, there is a need to ask if the creation of a new department entails a paradigm shift and if labor migration will be “here to stay instead of being just a temporary measure”.  In its position paper,  the CMA claims that it “does not oppose the intention to promote and protect the rights of our OFWs and their families” but that “we need to remember that lives are at stake and an act of Congress that may bring unintended consequences will be hard to reverse once implemented”.  
According to Marcia Gonzales Sadicon of Ako OFW,their organization supports the creation of a new Department but that the pros and cons must be weighed and problems must be anticipated.  Ms. Sadicon inquires, for example, about what would happen to the Office of the Undersecretary for Migrant Workers’ Affairs (OUMWA) which is attached to the DFA.  Will it be removed from the DFA and transferred to the proposed new department?  Will it be recognized by the host country?Ms. Sadicon is also particularly concerned with the possibility of OWWA and POEA being dissolved.  These agencies, she said, represent best practices that have been developed over many decades and should therefore be continued and strengthened. 
Edna Valdez, president of Bannuar Ti La Union,  a community-based migrant organization from La Union, claims that she and her group would like to see the enhancement of services of government agencies especially POEA and OWWA, rather than the creation of a new department. 
Dr. Edna Co of UP-CIFAL claims that given our history of migration management and the fact that migration is here to stay,  “we need to identify where the gaps and problems are, and based on this, how to move ahead” and “we should not be biased to any specific prescriptive step”.   A performance review of existing laws and institutions, she argues, is necessary and should have, in fact, been done periodically.  Dr. Co further claims that in all the bills being proposed, there is very little mention of reintegration.   For her, questions regarding reintegration must be addressed by any new proposal relating to migration management. 
The main concern of trade unions, meanwhile, is the possibility of the displacement of public sector employees.  According to Jillian Roque of the Public Services Labor Independent Confederation (PSLink), her union is not convinced that creating a new department is the best way forward since it will entail huge costs.   Ms. Roque adds that unionists are concerned with job losses, given the fact that the rights of public sector employees have not been prioritized -- as evidenced by the continued presence of contractual workers/job orders in government.  
According to Josua Mata of the labor center SENTRO, a prior question must be asked:  do we really need a new department?   The creation of the new department, Mr. Mata claims, needs to be further justified.
More questions
In addition to the concerns and questions raised by the various stakeholders (all valid!), there are three more questions that need to be asked:

  1. What happens to the OWWA fund and the Assistance to Nationals (ATN) fund of the OUMWA?

The debate on whether or not OWWA should be abolished or retained has to extend to a discussion of what will happen to OWWA’s 19.6 billion peso fund.   The same should also be asked of the billion-peso ATN fund now administered by OUMWA, a unit under the Department of Foreign Affairs.   The handling of billions of pesos of public money should be treated as a very serious matter. 

  1. What is the politics behind the proposal?

The proposal is obviously a Duterte agenda given that it was a campaign promise in 2016.  Moreover, OFWs are often claimed to be all-out supporters of President Duterte.  It is also plain to see that the authors of the proposed bills are all staunch supporters of President Duterte (e.g Senators Villar, Go, Pimentel and Representatives Cayetano and Cayetano and Rep. Paolo Duterte).  But which faction/s of the current supermajority stand to gain? Which faction/s stand to lose?  Who is likely to become the Cabinet Secretary of this proposed Department?  Who are likely to be appointed Undersecretaries and Assistant Secretaries?
These questions have become more important in light of the recent appointment of Mocha Uson as OWWA Deputy Executive Director.  Uson was appointed despite the one-year ban of candidates who lost in the elections and despite the fact that her track record lies in showbiz and not in migration-related work.   Will the new department simply be an additional platform to distribute the spoils of the Duterte victory?   Will it be run by OFWs themselves or by politicians seeking to court and gatekeep the OFW vote? 

  1. Will the new department be incentivizing migration even further? 

A department dedicated to OFWs could signal the further promotion of overseas work.  Will the new department be encouraging the deployment of more workers overseas?  There is nothing wrong with giving incentives for migration provided these do not impede nation building.   In our case, the promotion of migration in the past four decades has clearly resulted in an undeveloped domestic economy (i.e why create jobs when Filipinos can seek jobs abroad?), “brain and brawn drain” (i.e loss of human resources that could have contributed to local development), and, dysfunctional, broken families (i.e paradoxically, Filipino families have to be apart just to stay together)
More importantly, incentivizing migration has resulted in the neglect of locally-based workers, especially those who are actively seeking for work.   While there is a demand for assistance to OFWs, there seems to be no demand for assistance to the unemployed and underemployed here at home.  The unemployed (those seeking work) have reached around two million or 5% of the labor force (of 43.5 million) while the underemployed (those with work but are still seeking for work) have reached almost 7 million or more than 16% of the labor force.  All in all, at least 9 million Filipinos are in need of jobs. 
We also have to revisit the concept of “brain and brawn drain”.  To what extent are we losing valuable human resources?  One need only visit our hospitals to realize that nurses have become fewer and that those left behind also aspire to leave and find work abroad.  What will happen to healthcare provision in the country if we lose all of our nurses? 
The point is not to pit local and migrant workers against each other but to be cognizant that migration cannot be our main development strategy -- if we are to be truly developed, economically and socially.  Instead of prioritizing a new Department for OFWs that could potentially lead to job losses, perhaps we should prioritize improving the domestic economy and public service delivery, and, creating jobs and protecting workers, here at home? 
Carmel V. Abao is a faculty member of the Political Science Dept of the Ateneo de Manila University. She teaches political theory and international political economy.