A Dep’t of Overseas Filipino Workers?
The Duterte administration is seeking to establish a separate department specifically to cater to the needs of overseas Filipino workers (OFW). House Bill No. 2 and Senate Bill No. 202 have been filed to create the Department of Overseas Filipino Workers (DOFW). While the benefits of creating such a new department are notable, there are valid concerns that need to be considered.
The advantages of instituting the DOFW mainly focus on boosting bureaucratic efficiency. It will streamline and simplify government assistance for prospective and current overseas workers. It is expected to combine the functions of the Department of Labor and Employment, Philippine Overseas Employment Administration, Overseas Workers Welfare Administration, Commission on Filipinos Overseas and the Office of the Undersecretary for Migrant Workers’ Affairs of the Department of Foreign Affairs.
But while the DOFW can be an instrument for better service delivery, it can also be a symbol of the government’s failure to provide local employment. For Sen. Joel Villanueva, the DOFW may imply that the state’s policy is to “send its citizens to work abroad.” Migrant workers advocate Susan Ople disagrees: “The state is not compelling our people to leave … All we can do is to manage labor migration in the best way possible.”
In considering the establishment of the DOFW, the Philippines may benefit from examining Bangladesh’s Ministry of Expatriates’ Welfare and Overseas Employment (MOEW&OE). The ministry is mainly tasked to increase job opportunities overseas for its citizens and protect their rights as migrant workers, which the DOFW similarly seeks to undertake. The Philippines may consider how the MOEW&OE pursues its tasks to determine whether the DOFW is necessary. This should be a good reference point for the Philippines to evaluate the efficiency and shortcomings of the current “division of labor” among its government agencies covering the OFW cause.
It is also important to clarify the policies of the prospective DOFW. While the protection of migrant workers’ welfare is indisputably a government mandate, the promotion and/or facilitation of overseas employment is a thorny issue. Will the establishment of the DOFW include institutional efforts to expand job prospects abroad, which Villanueva reckons is an indication of the government’s policy to send its people out? Or will it merely regulate or assist in the process of overseas employment for its citizens, as Ople pragmatically pointed out, in line with the current labor realities?
The Philippines appears ambiguous on its policy stance regarding sending its citizens abroad; hence the dilemma of institutionalizing the “export” of labor. Although labor promotion is not a declared policy, it has since become an implicit objective and a de facto economic strategy of the Philippines, as it has signed labor agreements with other countries and relies on overseas remittances to augment the country’s economy. In Bangladesh, the establishment of the MOEW&OE as early as 2001 was a critical acknowledgment that its government aimed to expand overseas employment for its citizens to benefit the country’s economy.
The Philippines needs to think hard about the prospects and implications of labor migration before establishing the DOFW. In the long-term, will labor migration increase or decrease? If Filipinos continue to leave the country for work, then the need for a DOFW to accommodate the multifaceted needs of OFWs becomes more acute. But if the government’s long-view goal is to foster employment at home by growing the economy such that its citizens no longer have to leave for work abroad, then the DOFW may eventually become a wasteful redundancy in the country’s development plan.
In the absence of a sustainable alternative, the Philippines has relied on labor migration for too long that it has overlooked carrying out a more effective program to address institutional inequities that would help produce more local employment. This is a critical factor that needs to be addressed in deliberating on the establishment of a DOFW, which, after all, would require massive investments and the reprioritizing of scarce government efforts and resources.
Andrea Chloe Wong is completing her PhD studies in political science at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand.
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