Sat. Jan 22nd, 2022

The present conundrum affecting our returning overseas workers has exposed the inutility of the Senate to respond to a changing social environment and the impotence of the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) to protect them.

In a recent Senate hearing, Senator Christopher Lawrence “Bong” Tesoro Go aired reported issues faced by overseas Filipino workers such as being forced to stay in health quarantine facilities beyond the mandated fourteen-day quarantine period, and OFWs in distress not being able to return home immediately to the country and to their provinces due to limitations in the delivery of services from government agencies such as Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) and the Maritime Industry Authority (MIA).

“Noon pa lamang ay marami nang mga issues ang kinakaharap ng ating mga kababayang nagtatrabaho abroad. Ang paglipat-lipat ng ahensya ay naging pabigat na proseso sa kanila. Mas lumala pa ngayon dahil sa hirap na dulot ng Covid-19 crisis.

 “The issues encountered by our OFWs prove that we need a dedicated agency for OFWs to be able to meet their needs, thus my call to establish a Department to protect our OFWs and to better provide efficient and effective delivery of services to our OFWs,” Go said in the virtual hearing.

Senator Go filed a bill in the Upper House on July 2, 2019 for the same purpose just more than a month after being elected as Senator. President Duterte included his Senate Bill 202 in his administration’s priority legislative agenda.

Voting on third reading, 173-11, with no abstentions, the House of Representatives approved March 11, 2020 its Bill 5832 which calls for the creation of the Department of Filipinos Overseas and Foreign Employment.

However, its Senate counterpart is curiously pending in the committee level.

Urgency diverted to ABS-CBN instead

It is tremendously obnoxious that our legislators have pigeonholed themselves as busy bodies discussing a private bill providing for a franchise for a television network against an adverse public opinion at that, while the predicament of our overseas Filipino workers hang in a precarious state.

Thirteen Senators even had the gall to pass a Senate resolution for a provisional authority for ABS-CBN inventing issues such as violation of press freedom and the dislocation of allegedly 11,000 (?) workers, with some of them joining to attack the National Telecommunications Commission and President Duterte in unison with the legal fronts of Communist terrorists, yellow trolls and stupid entertainers.

Well, what about 34,000 OFWs already repatriated and another 42,000 expected to arrive in the country by next month?

Tremendous pressure has been put on the shoulder of our Overseas Workers Welfare Administration because repatriated workers have to be quarantined for two weeks, and their return to their respective homes have been delayed because the Department of Health would not issue them clearances unless they show negative to Covid-19.

A gridlock ails the testing process. As of this writing only 2,000 have been issued negative testing results and have been bused to their respective destinations on government expense.

“We should make sure that all Filipinos in distress, here or abroad, are given timely assistance and that measures are also undertaken to protect their welfare, especially in times of crises,” he added.

Perennial issues

The proposed measure aims to address perennial issues such as inefficient coordination among offices concerned with OFW affairs; lack of immediate legal assistance to OFWs in distress; lack of full migration cycle approach in promoting migrant’s rights from pre-employment, onsite and reintegration services; and lack of shared database systems that contains relevant information on all OFWs to aid in tracking their status and fast track delivery of assistance to distressed workers.  Currently, services and information are scattered throughout several offices.

“Nalilito ang ating mga OFWs sa pangkasalukuyang sitwasyon. Sa oras na kailangan nila ng saklolo, hindi na nila alam sino dapat lapitan kaya sa media o Facebook sila nananawagan,” he said.

He also reported on the various assistance provided by the government, particularly the cash assistance under the DOLE-AKAP program for OFWs who are either displaced from work or those who were not able to work because of travel restrictions.

The Senator also noted during the hearing that since around ten million Filipinos are based overseas including permanent, temporary, and irregular migrants, it is imperative for the government to have a single and more focused department to look after this large number of Filipinos overseas.

“The overseas Filipinos comprise approximately 10% of the total population of the Philippines. Bigyan natin sila ng mabilis, maayos at mas maaasahang serbisyo lalo na sa oras ng kanilang pangangailangan,” he said in past statements.

Singular umbrella

Under his proposed Senate Bill 202 or the Department of Overseas Filipinos Act of 2019, the proposal aims to make government efforts more efficient and responsive to the needs of Filipinos abroad by putting government agencies dealing with OFW concerns under one umbrella. 

The said bill proposes that the several agencies and their powers and functions, funds and appropriations, records, equipment, property, and personnel be transferred to the new department to be established. These agencies include OWWA, Philippine Overseas Employment Administration, Commission on Filipino Overseas, International Labor Affairs Bureau of DOLE and National Reintegration Center for OFWs. 

The bill also states that the powers and functions of the Office of the Undersecretary for Migrant Workers Affairs under the DFA and all Philippine Overseas Labor Offices and their officials under DOLE will also be transferred to the new department.

Meanwhile, during the same Senate Committee of the Whole hearing, Senator Go also took the opportunity to ask Department of Health Secretary Francisco Duque III about the alleged refusal of hospitals to provide emergency care to patients during the pandemic, citing that under Republic Act 10932, a law which strengthened the Anti-Hospital Deposit Law, it is unlawful to refuse to administer medical treatment and support to prevent death or permanent disability, among others.

DOH responded by saying that the incidents are already under investigation and that they are ready hold any individual at fault accountable.

Unforgivable ambivalence

What baffles most is how could our Legislators lawyer for a single vested interest like ABS-CBN while pussyfooting on a very urgent measure such as Senate Bill 202?

Allan Peter Cayetano, a former senator and now Speaker of the House of Representatives, was even willing to violate the Constitutional rule requiring of separate days for first, second and third readings, render an ad hoc definition of a provisional franchise, convert the whole house into a Committee of the Whole and manipulate a majority vote of its 302 members, just to accommodate a private bill of no national significance or common good.

Sad to say, the priority of Congress has been to find a way to appease the ABS-CBN demons and railroad its franchise. No less than Speaker Allan Peter Cayetano did not care if he turned into a House jester, if only to show his servitude to the oligarchic clan.

The issue that it was anyway rejected by the House on its ominous third reading converted into a generic franchise, is besides the point.

It is also immaterial that Speaker Cayetano’s conflict of interest was exposed, as he forgot his law office CaseLaw, which heralds his name Cayetano as senior partner and Sebastian, the firm’s managing partner and husband of Senator Pia Cayetano.

Equally irrelevant are insinuations in social media for whatever financial considerations or support for his presidential ambitions he would be receiving given the red carpet treat he gave the beleaguered TV station. So what if this causes the political demise of anything Cayetano?

I am sure anyway that President Rodrigo Duterte will never sign an ABS-CBN franchise under any form or circumstance given the treacherous way the media network had conducted itself more in breach than compliance for the past 25 years, and how legislators disregarded due process of law with a sense of impunity.

I am also convinced that the regulatory infringement of ABS-CBN will instead end up with the Internal Revenue Office and the Securities and Exchange Commission, and its crimes with the Regional Trial Court for prosecution.

What I would like to see is an expressway for the swift approval of Senate Bill 202 or the Department of Overseas Filipinos Act, a legislation that I am sure the President will sign into law. (ia/

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