(Last of two parts)

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. 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 round table discussion (RTD) on Sept. 13 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 this policy debate.

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 Department of Foreign Affairs (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 the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) and the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (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 (Centro Internacional de Formación para Autoridades y Lideres) 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 (Sentro ng mga Nagkakaisa at Progresibong Manggagawa), 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.

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 P19.6-billion 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.

2. 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 Rodrigo Duterte. It is also plain to see that the authors of the proposed bills are all staunch supporters of President Duterte (e.g. Senators Cynthia Villar, Bong Go, Koko Pimentel and Representatives Peter Cayetano, Laarni Cayetano, and 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?

3. 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 work. While there is a demand for assistance to OFWs, there seems to be no demand for assistance for 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 health care 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.