THE House of Representatives passed on third reading a priority measure seeking to create the Department of Filipinos Overseas and Foreign Employment.

With 173 affirmative votes, 11 negative and zero abstention, the chamber passed House Bill 5832 three days before its seven-week Easter break starting March 14.

The Department of Filipinos Overseas was declared a priority measure by President Rodrigo R. Duterte during his 2019 State of the Nation Address.

The department is tasked to “formulate, plan, coordinate, promote, administer, implement policies, and undertake systematic national development programs for managing and monitoring the overseas or foreign employment of Filipino Workers.”

Under the bill, it must also take into consideration “domestic manpower requirements and the need to protect the rights to decent work and fair and ethical recruitment practices.”

Several agencies and their functions are to be transferred to the new department, including the Office of the Undersecretary for Migrant Workers’ Affairs (OUMWA) of the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), the Commission on Filipinos Overseas (CFO), all Philippine Overseas Labor Offices (POLOs), which are currently under the Department of Labor and Employment (DoLE), the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA), and the Social Welfare Attaches Office (SWATO) of the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DWSD).

The department is required to “build a strong and harmonious partnership” with other countries and to assess policies and labor conditions where OFWs are deployed.

Representative Edcel C. Lagman of Albay said he voted against the measure because the bill “will uselessly balloon the bureaucracy… without addressing the enormous and escalating social costs of labor migration.”

“The projected department does not also address the overriding reasons why Filipinos work overseas like the following: (a) unstable economic situation in the Philippines; (b) high unemployment and underemployment rates; (c) low salary offered by local companies; (d) contractualization of labor arrangement; (e) poor workers benefits; and (f) discrimination in job hiring,” he said in a statement on Wednesday.

“The essence and purpose of the bill are manifestly to convert a hitherto stopgap strategy to a permanent policy encouraging and promoting the export of Filipino manpower, notwithstanding a proffered ‘sunset’ provision which was included to mitigate opposition to the measure even as the so-called ‘sunset’ provision envisions a ‘sunrise’ perpetuation of the Department,” he added.

The bill’s counterpart measure in the Senate is in committee.

Separately, a measure which will increase the road users’ tax and expand funding for the government modernization program for public utility vehicles was also approved on third and final reading in the House of Representatives Tuesday.

With 239 affirmative votes, five negative and one abstention, the chamber passed House Bill 6136 or the Motor Vehicle Road User’s Tax (MVRUT) Act.

The measure calls for a 30% annual rate increase for passenger cars, both public and private, over three years.

The rates for utility vehicles, sport utility vehicles, buses, trucks and trailers will be based on gross vehicle weight (GVW): P1.40/kilo of GVW in the first year, P2.50/kilo in the second year, and P3.40/kilo in the third year.

The measure also seeks to cut the road user’s tax on vehicles for hire to 50% of the tax for private and government vehicles.

According to the bill’s principal author, Rep. Jose Maria Clemente S. Salceda of Albay, “50% of incremental revenues will finance modernization of public utility vehicles and government programs to be undertaken for the prevention of death due to road accidents and accident victims’ assistance” while the other 50% will go to “a more safe Build, Build, Build” program.

Ito pong tax na ito, napaka-progressive. Mayaman ang magbabayad. Mahirap ang makikinabang. (This tax is very progressive. The rich will pay while the poor will benefit.) And we expect it to help ease transport conditions for everyone by contributing to safer road infrastructure, and by expanding the PUV modernization,” Mr. Salceda said in a statement on March 5.

No similar bill has been filed in the Senate.

A measure which requires banks to ease the lending process for agricultural and rural development projects was also approved on third and final reading Tuesday.

With 240 affirmative votes, five negative and zero abstentions, the chamber passed House Bill 6134 or the Rural Agricultural and Fisheries Development Financing System Act.

According to Rep. Junie E. Cua of Quirino, the principal author of the bill and the chairman of the House committee on banks and financial intermediaries:

“The cost of lending to small farmers and fisheries… kasi maliliit na pautang ito eh so masyadong expensive (is too high relative to the amounts lent). You can just imagine, to be able for them to lend P25 million with 1,000 farmers borrowing P25,000 only. That’s a lot of processing,” he told BusinessWorld by phone on March 5.

Mr. Cua said that banks would rather pay the penalty for not lending to small farmers and fishermen, which they are required to set aside funds for under the Agri-Agra Law (Republic Act 10000).

“They would rather pay the penalty which is one half of one percent (of non-compliance or under-compliance), than to lose the whole amount. So those are the reasons why they shy away from lending,” he said.

To address these issues, Mr. Cua said that the bill proposes to organize farmers into cooperatives or organizations to provide “ready, low-interest, and flexible financing” for the needs of rural and agricultural households.

He added that the funds to implement the measure will be partly generated by banks and by penalties for non-compliance.

The funds will be managed by a council which will be dominated by the private sector, Mr. Cua noted.

“Since pera nila ’yung papautangin sa farmer, mas sisiguraduhin nila na yung papautangin nila ay maayos. So sisiguraduhin nila ma-o-organize ’yung farmers (The private sector can be counted on to better ensure that the loans are above board and the farmers are properly organized),” he said.

The bill’s counterpart measures in the Senate are still in committee. — Genshen L. Espedido