The cost of bringing our migrant workers home
BY NICON F. FAMERONAG
Presidential Middle East Preparedness Committee
The estimated bill for evacuating and repatriating over 30,000 overseas Filipino workers from Lebanon was pegged by presidential fiat: P500 million from sources still to be identified and another P500 million from Overseas Workers’ Welfare Administration funds. This amount is specified in Executive Order 551, issued by President Arroyo on August 2, a full 21 days after the Israelis attacked the Hezbollah in its stronghold in southern Lebanon.
The amount is the most that the Philippine government can spend for its "modern-day heroes" in addition to a few million dollars already expended to bring home some 2,500 workers. Let us go into the details.
OWWA data estimate that the cost of repatriating one OFW from Damascus to Manila is $1,800 for airfare on a chartered flight and $1,250 on a commercial flight. The cost of transporting an OFW from Beirut to Damascus is $32 and another $32 for an exit visa. The entry visa to Damascus is $32. Add to these expenses $3 in food and shelter, and the total adds up to $1,899. This amount does not include the cost of medicine and other miscellaneous expenses, as pointed out by Sen. Rodolfo Biazon.
Flying 30,000 OFWs home would cost the government $56,970,000, or P2.963 billion. Subtracting from this amount the P1 billion allocated by Executive Order 551, the gap is P1.963 billion. The government needs all the financial creativity it can summon to come up with this still unavailable amount.
Can the government dip its hands into the estimated P8 billion in OFW contributions, held in trust by the OWWA?
Sen. Franklin Drilon, a former labor secretary, said it can, but cites other opinions saying "No." This, Drilon said, is precisely why there is a need for the labor, foreign affairs, OWWA and overseas employment officials to appear before the Senate. Senate President Manuel Villar has already summoned them.
Strictly speaking, the Migrant Workers’ Act of 1995 says the OWWA membership contributions are to be paid by the OFWs’ employers. In practice, it is the workers themselves who pay the contribution. Ask any OFW. Ask him further if he or she gets reimbursed by his or her employer, and the answer will be "No."
Can non-OWWA members benefit from OWWA members’ money? Again, strictly speaking, no. Section 15 under R.A. 8042 specifies the establishment of a repatriation fund of P100 million to be replenished every year by Congress.
Under the POEA’s standard employment contract for OFWs, there is a provision of joint and several liability, which means it should be the OFW’s employer who should bear the cost of a worker’s repatriation in any event. If the employer does not pay up, or is not able to bear the cost of repatriation, it is the responsibility of the employer’s agent in the Philippines, the licensed recruitment agency, who should do so. Does this happen? No. It has always been the OWWA that advances the repatriation cost of workers in distress. It is doubtful if the OWWA gets reimbursed by the employer or by the Philippine recruitment agency. Clearly, something needs to be fixed in the law and in its implementation.
P700 million in collectibles
My source says the money collectible by the OWWA, representing the cost of repatriation that it has advanced, is running close to P700 million.
How will the OWWA collect this gargantuan sum? Through the POEA, as the government’s regulatory arm for the overseas recruitment sector. If the POEA flexes its muscle and forcibly collects the amount from employers or licensed recruitment agencies, under pain of suspension of license, then theoretically no recruitment agency will be left standing to operate. There will be chaos.
A migrant worker pays $25 to become an OWWA member. This fee is not for a lifetime membership, but only for the duration of a contract, say two years. Within this period, the OFW can claim for benefits and services due him as a member. Life insurance, disability benefits, medical reimbursement and other social amelioration benefits, such as loans, training, education scholarships, among others. After the worker has gone home at the end of his or her contract, he or she no longer enjoys the benefits.
Finding a job back home
The actual cost of repatriating the OFW from abroad is only half the story. The other half consists of the social cost of being home, to be borne not only by the OFW and his family but also by the society at large. A "returning" OFW is a jobless worker. And 30,000 jobless OFWs are not a small addition to the millions of Filipinos already unemployed. Finding them jobs should be a priority. Before that, however, there should be a deliberate effort by the government to see to it that the dislocated OFWs from Lebanon receive psychological advice or counseling, so they would be able to easily adjust to the conditions of their homeland.
Fortunately, the OWWA and the POEA have already in place programs to assist returning OFWs. A Lebanon desk has been opened at the POEA that does social profiling, skill matching and training needs assessment. Also, the OWWA conducts entrepreneurial counseling, and offers small business loans. The OWWA also has a scholarship program for children of OFWs.
These social amelioration programs, however, have been buried under the avalanche of criticism on the alleged loss of OFW money held in trust by the OWWA. Someone has to explain what and how this happened after the tumult over the Lebanon crisis subsides. The first step to arrive at this is for Malacañang to allow the concerned officials to tell Congress the truth. The next is for Congress to stop assigning guilt and finding fault. It should listen, share the blame, if need be, and amend R.A. 8042. Outside of these, all other shameless displays of arrogance—and ignorance—on the issue are peripheral.