The case of the missing POEA files

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TOOTS OPLE

I HAVE been hearing good things about Labor Undersecretary Bernard Olalia. He now serves as the officer-in-chief of the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA). According to recruitment industry leaders, Olalia was facilitative and attentive during his meetings with them. He is also known to be an honest civil servant. Given the complexities of overseas employment, that certainly is good news.

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Nevertheless, certain cracks in the system drive me to reiterate an earlier appeal also made in this column: the POEA needs a permanent, full-time administrator. It needs someone who can whip the agency into shape and provide it with the focus and attention that it deserves. The POEA has been without a leader for nearly two years. Ask those within the POEA itself regarding the agency’s vision and strategic plans for 2018. You would likely hear the sound of silence. Any regulatory body that has been without a leader for so long will not be able to crack the whip without hitting some of its own body parts.

The case of the missing files is a prime example of how a regulatory body should not behave. Some recruitment agencies were suspended by the POEA last week for failure to comply with the raising of capitalization from P2 million to P5 million. Under the 2016 rules, existing licensed agencies can gradually increase capitalization over a period of four years at P750,000 yearly. Most licensed agencies complied with this requirement several months ago and yet, some of them were suspended for a week because their documents could not be found. The POEA has started renovating its decades-old building, and no one thought of encoding or scanning all these sensitive and vital documents prior to physically removing and transferring all the boxes of files in their offices.

A suspension order stops a licensed agency from all aspects of recruitment. It affects not just the agency but also the workers who are about to leave, the foreign employers that await the arrival of their new recruits, and job orders that need to be processed so that the search for applicants can begin. Unfairly and without due process, a number of these agencies were handed suspension orders because their documentary proof of compliance such as bank statements and SEC papers could not be found.

ACTS OFW party-list representative John Bertiz said he had to intercede in behalf of some recruitment agencies of good standing because the suspension order was taking its toll on the workers that could not be deployed. “The licensed recruitment agencies were able to comply within the prescribed one-year period. The problem was that the POEA staff could not locate the physical documents submitted by the agencies, thus leading to the unfair issuance of suspension orders. Luckily, some agencies have the same documents on file. Yet, it took time for the POEA to lift their suspension orders, thus putting the jobs of these overseas workers at risk,” Bertiz said, adding that even some manning agencies were affected.

The building renovations did not come as a surprise; every floor has to be renovated. Sound management practice dictates that digital files are made of vital, urgent and sensitive documents. A public apology is owed to those agencies that were unfairly suspended, and by extension, to the workers whose jobs are now at risk because of acts of negligence by POEA management and staff.

I have also been hearing complaints about inordinate delays in the POEA’s processing of new job orders and the accreditation of foreign employers. What usually entails three-day processing now stretches into days, if not weeks, of waiting, especially if there is a new evaluator assigned and she has found some deficiencies in the submissions. Since the approval of job orders and vetting of foreign employers were already accomplished by the various Philippine Overseas Labor Offices, or POLOs, the verification work of the POEA should be largely ministerial. The problem lies with double verification of the same documents—in essence, the work of the POLO is repeated and passed judgment on by a POEA evaluator.

Add to this set of woes the lack of signatories. One POEA document requires at least four signatories, and when a director is out of town, the document goes to sleep. Like Sleeping Beauty, it awaits the kiss of the pen before waking up. What if the holder of the pen has been invited to speak at various forums? Then the documents for processing at the POEA continue to pile up, until you have a dormitory filled with snoring papers.

Perhaps, it’s time that recruitment industry leaders call for a dialogue with Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello 3rd and Undersecretary Bernard Olalia to discuss their problems. Grievances aired on Viber and via other social media platforms produce very little results except for communal online misery.

The POEA has extremely dedicated employees in dire need of moral and efficient leadership. Their ranks are demoralized. Civil society groups also see the need for more consultation and transparency. The recruitment industry, given the size of its capital and weight of its obligations, must lay its cards on the table, as most investors are able to do.

Things are not the way they should be at the POEA. And, hey, that’s me being kind.

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