The coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic has negatively affected the world economy resulting to significant losses of jobs for Filipino workers overseas. As the health crisis continues to threaten the lives and livelihood of many workers abroad, Senator Christopher Lawrence “Bong” Go has renewed the call for the establishment of the proposed Department of Overseas Filipino Workers (DOFWs).
“Simula noong nakaraang taon pa, nanawagan na ako na sana’y mapadali ang pagbibigay ng serbisyo sa ating OFWs sa pamamagitan ng pagtayo ng isang departamento na mamamahala sa pag-aalaga ng kanilang kapakanan,” he said.
“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 mula sa pagkuha ng kanilang mga permit, hanggang sa pagbigay ng tulong para maresolba ang mga problemang hinaharap nila sa ibang bansa,” Go added.
“Mas lumala pa ngayon dahil sa hirap na dulot ng COVID-19 crisis. Kung mayroon pong DOFWs, mas mapapadali sana ang koordinasyon ng mga ahensya at may iisang departamento na tututok sa mga pangangailangan nila,” he stressed.
The creation of the Department of Overseas Filipinos is one of Go’s priority bills filed just more than month after being elected as Senator in 2019 and is also part of the Duterte Administration’s priority legislative agenda. The House of Representatives has passed its version last March of this year. However, its Senate counterpart is still pending in the Senate Committee on Labor, Employment and Human Resources Development.
“Ako ay nanawagan sa mga kasamahan ko sa Senado na sana ay maipasa na ang panukalang itayo ang ‘Department of Overseas Filipinos’,” Go said.
Under his proposed Senate Bill (SB) 202 or the Department of Overseas Filipinos Act of 2019, Go said that the measure aims to make government more efficient and responsive to the needs of Filipinos abroad. The bill aims to put concerned government agencies dealing with OFW concerns under one umbrella.
“Tungkulin ng ating pamahalaan na pangalagaan ang kapakanan ng ating mamamayan na nasa abroad. 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,” said Go.
The proposed measure aims to also address perennial issues, such as the need to ease the coordination among offices concerned with OFW affairs; 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 system that contains all information of 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.
“Katulad ngayon, madaming dinadaanan pang iba’t ibang ahensya bago makaresponde ang gobyerno sa mga OFWs na humihingi ng saklolo. Iba-iba ang concern, iba-iba ang kailangang lapitan pa mula DFA, OWWA, MARINA, at iba pa,” Go said.
“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 added.
“If mayroon na tayong department for OFWs, iisa na lang ang lalapitan at iisa na lang ang makikipag coordinate na departamento. Magiging mas maayos ang pagresponde sa mga krisis at mas mabilis nating matutulungan ang ating mga kababayang humihingi ng saklolo,” he stressed.
The proposal also aims to strengthen and streamline the government’s capability to respond to the needs of OFWs and help ease their burden in the future.
“Kawawa po talaga ang mga OFWs ngayon. Hindi naman po natin akalain na ganitong kalawak ang epekto ng COVID-19 sa kabuhayan ng mga Pilipino lalo na mga OFWs. Huwag na po natin silang mas pahirapan pa. Let us learn from this COVID-19 experience,” he said.
Go stressed that the challenges currently faced by OFWs and the difficulties experienced by the government in responding to their needs show the relevance of the proposal to establish a department with a sole mandate to handle the concerns of our “modern day heroes”.
To ensure the efficiency and effectiveness of response to OFW concerns, the bill proposes that the following agencies and their powers and functions, funds and appropriations, records, equipment, property, and personnel be transferred to the new department to be established: Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA), Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA), Commission on Filipino Overseas (CFO), International Labor Affairs Bureau of the Department of Labor and Employment (ILAB-DOLE) and National Reintegration Center for OFWs (NRCO).
The bill also states that the powers and functions of the Office of the Undersecretary for Migrant Workers Affairs under the Department of Foreign Affairs and all Philippine Overseas Labor Offices and their officials under DOLE will also be transferred to the new department.
“Nakita po natin ang mga pagsubok na pinagdaraanan ng ating mga OFWs dahil sa COVID-19. Napapanahon na talaga para magtatag tayo ng departamento upang mas maprotektahan ang kanilang kapakanan,” Go said.
Meanwhile, to address immediate concerns of migrant workers, DFA has been facilitating mercy flights for returning OFWs. OWWA has also rolled out its Abot Kamay ang Pagtulong (AKAP) program which provides financial assistance to COVID-19-affected OFWs who decided to come home or be repatriated, including those who were not able to go back to their work destinations abroad due to travel restrictions.
The Maritime Industry Authority (MARINA) is also presently implementing its Seafarers Uwi Pamilya program where seafarers stranded in Metro Manila are assisted in going home to their families in the provinces, subject to quarantine and other health protocols.
“Itinuturing natin silang mga bagong bayani. Malaki ang kanilang ambag sa paglago ng ekonomiya ng bansa. At ngayon, sa pandemyang ito, dapat natin silang tulungan at mas tutukan pa. Huwag natin silang pahirapan pa,” Go lamented.