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Commentary

Confusing signals on OFWs

Reminiscent of his election campaign, President Duterte was in his element when he spoke to some 4,000 Filipinos in Bahrain during his recent trip to the Middle East.

In his customary expletive-laden speech, Mr. Duterte lashed out at critics of his war on drugs and at some local companies that are allegedly not paying the proper taxes. But what drew the loudest applause from his audience was his announcement that he would create in a few months a Department of Overseas Filipino Workers to attend to the needs of Filipinos living and working abroad.

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On the sidelines, however, Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III expressed misgivings about that idea. He pointed out that already, two government agencies—the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration and the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration—are seeing to the interests of OFWs.

Besides, Bello said, the creation of a Department of OFWs would run counter to then Candidate Duterte’s promise to provide decent jobs in the Philippines for Filipinos so they can remain in the country for good after the expiration of their overseas employment contracts.

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Migrante, an organization that advocates the protection of the rights of OFWs, echoed Bello’s position. It said the creation of such a department would encourage more Filipinos to seek employment abroad despite the risks and adverse social effects.

So what exactly is the Duterte administration’s policy direction for Filipinos who are forced to leave their homes and loved ones to find meaningful livelihood elsewhere in the world?

Is the idea of establishing a Department of OFWs another hyperbole or off-the-cuff statement that the President enjoys making to excite his audience, only to backtrack later or force his spokespersons to “clarify” if it invites adverse public reaction?

In the first place, creating a government department is not part of the powers of a president. It’s a purely legislative function that requires extensive study because of its strategic and financial implications.

Note that it took eight years and two presidents for the Department of Information and Communications Technology to come into
being. A bill providing for its creation was filed in 2008, and approved on third reading in the House of Representatives, during the term of then President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. But the Senate did not act on it until Congress
adjourned in 2010. The bill was re-filed when President Benigno Aquino III assumed office and was eventually enacted and signed into law a month before his term of office expired in June 2016.

If the pace at which the administration’s proposed tax reform package is moving in Congress (it’s still in the House committee level) is used as benchmark, it is doubtful if the promised department will come to fruition before the Duterte administration exits in 2022.

Of course, the President can speed up things by certifying as urgent a bill creating that department and directing his legislative allies to act on it immediately. But since this matter has no bearing on the project closest to his heart—the campaign against illegal drugs—it is futile to expect him to go out of his way to make good his promise to the OFWs.

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Over and above the issue of setting up a Department of OFWs is the question of funding. Starting a department from scratch is not going to be cheap. Provisions have to be made for office space, facilities and salaries of its staff. And because the Filipinos whose interests it’s supposed to protect and promote are abroad, the new department may have to maintain satellite offices in countries with a lot of OFWs.

Given this situation, the initial budgetary allocation for an office of that nature and scope would, conservatively, be between
P3 billion and 4 billion. That’s a lot of money.

Clearly, that money could be better allocated to create job opportunities that would persuade OFWs to come home for good rather than be spent for the benefit of a new set of bureaucrats.

Raul J. Palabrica (rpalabrica@inquirer.com.ph) writes a weekly column in the Business section of the Inquirer.

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