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(Not) home for Christmas

05:07 AM December 21, 2017

While we put up the decorations and rush to the malls for the goodies of Christmas to share around the tree, most of the 11 million Filipinos trapped overseas won’t. They’ll spend a lonely day able only to join their family on Viber or Facebook Live. It’s not the same, is it?

So it’s good to see this administration actively fulfilling its promises to the overseas Filipino workers that help keep our economy afloat.

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Among then Mayor Rodrigo Duterte’s campaign promises was to streamline services to our OFW heroes. The tough-talking candidate’s style resonated well with the OFWs, and he overwhelmingly topped the overseas absentee voting with 72 percent of 168,000 votes cast.

And improvement of OFW welfare has been among President Duterte’s priorities. In his first State of the Nation Address, he ordered the establishment of a one-stop shop for OFWs. After a month, the Department of Labor and Employment and the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration launched a one-stop shop inside the POEA complex. Other such centers are currently operating in Clark, Calamba, Tacloban, Palawan and Zamboanga.

An OFW bank has been opened. In October, Mr. Duterte approved the Land Bank of the Philippines’ acquisition of Philippine Postal Savings Bank, which will be converted into the Overseas Filipino Bank.

Almost immediately after assuming office, the President prohibited authorities from arresting passengers for having bullets in their luggage. During the campaign, he said that if he were the country’s president, he will have the perpetrators of the “tanim/laglag-bala” scam swallow bullets. And it was stopped. A simple thing the previous administration just couldn’t do.

One small thing I liked was the President’s instruction to use the photos, not of himself, but of heroes on OFW IDs. Name me another politician that is doing the same. “You cannot flatter me with my picture,” he said, warning underperforming sycophants in the government service who hang his photograph or portrait on the walls of their office.

The OFW ID is a new idea. With it, OFWs will no longer need to queue in transacting with agencies for their overseas employment as they can now access government services online. It’s free. OFWs can use their ID to avail themselves of travel-tax and terminal-fee exemptions.

OFWs are all over the world: There is a Filipino caregiver in London, a nurse in Boston, a dental aide in Winnipeg, a mechanical engineer in Singapore, an office clerk in Dubai, a data analyst in Jakarta, and so on. Their skills have diversified over time. These intrepid Filipinos endure the difficulty of being away from their loved ones just so they can send their children to school, build a small house, or save a little for the small business they are planning to put up on their return.

But this system has to change as it’s not kind to families. The government needs to work quicker in fostering a business-friendly regulatory environment that will attract more jobs and create enough employment opportunities for Filipinos, so working abroad will merely be an alternative option.

The end-goal must be to make the Philippines an attractive location for investment. This should be the ultimate goal of the second package of TRAIN that Congress will tackle early next year. The lawmakers and the finance and trade departments should find a middle ground between the government’s desire to pad government coffers and its commitment to make the Philippines an investment hub.

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We need more investments from “disruptors” such as Uber, Grab, Airbnb, Food Panda, etc. But these investors won’t come if we apply 19th-century regulations to forward-looking business models. I understand some former OFWs have invested in a compact sedan or AUV to be able to drive for Uber and Grab and earn a decent monthly income, enough to amortize their vehicles, earn extra for their family, and stay home. The Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board should consider relaxing the regulations and streamlining applications for transport network vehicle services. The LTFRB is putting those jobs at risk with its antediluvian regulations.

Enjoy the holidays with your kids, spouses, lolos, and lolas. This season is for families, after all. But let’s spare a thought for those brave millions who won’t be with their families this year.

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