(First 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. The proposal is not new. It was one of President Duterte’s campaign promises in 2016, but it was 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 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.

According to Ellene Sana, Executive Director of CMA, 34 bills relating to the creation of a separate department of OFWs have been filed in the House of Representatives and seven 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 regarding 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 the DIWA Party List, HB 3313 of Congresswoman Camille Villar and HB 1439 of Congressman Luis Campos. The bills propose the following: creation of a separate department with one Secretary, three Undersecretaries, and three Assistant Secretaries, regional offices, one-stop migrant assistance centers, attached agencies Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) and POEA (Philippine Overseas Employment Administration), an inter-agency council on migration and development and a Special Assistance Revolving Fund of P1 billion.

Cluster 2: Department of Filipino Workers and Foreign Employment (DOFW) or Department of Overseas Filipinos (DOF). The proposed bill of Congressman Alan Peter Cayetano, Congresswoman Laarni Cayetano, and Congressman Paolo Duterte (HB02) can be clustered with that of Senator Bong Go (SB 202), Senator Koko Pimentel (SB 92), and those of 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, National Reintegration Center For OFWs (NRCO), Commission on Filipinos Overseas (CFO), International Labor Affairs Bureau (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 Cayetanos and Duterte bills 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” (the Cayetanos and Duterte bill) or a “special assistance fund” (Bong Go bill).

According to ACTS CIS Party List Representative Niña Taburan who attended the abovementioned RTD, “it was high time” 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 P1 billion.

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: ILAB, including all Philippine Overseas Labor Offices (POLOs); the CFO; the Office for Social Welfare Attache; and, pertinent offices of the Maritime Industry Authority (MARINA).

According to OWWA Director 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 University of the Philippines National College of Public Administration and Governance (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 Director 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, Mr. 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.

Christopher Lomibao, Committee Secretary of the House of Representatives Committee on Overseas Workers Affairs, agrees that the points raised by OWWA and POEA need to be addressed in the deliberation of the features of the proposed new department.

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.

(To be continued.)


Carmel V. Abao is an Assistant Professor of the Department of Political Science of Ateneo de Manila University. She teaches classical political theory, international political economy and Philippine politics and governance.