PRESIDENT Rodrigo Duterte has expressed, on several occasions and in several different ways, an intention to improve government performance by cutting red tape and encouraging greater process efficiency. We might wonder, however, if he truly appreciates the depth of the bog the bureaucracy in this country has become.
As just one example, on Thursday I spent nearly two hours and made no fewer than five phone calls to ultimately fail to learn the answer to what should have been a simple question: How many Filipino seafarers are affected by the shutdown of South Korea’s Hanjin Lines, which filed for court receivership on Wednesday? (see story on page A1)
A call to the Maritime Industry Authority (Marina) referred me to a different number within Marina. That second call—and by the way, has anyone in the government ever figured out how to transfer a call to another extension?—referred me to the Philippine Overseas Employment Agency (POEA), where I was immediately asked, “Did you check with Marina?” and provided a number, different from either of the first two I called. Disregarding that piece of advice and trying a different number at POEA (call number four), I was informed that the agency does not track overseas workers according to employer, but only by job classification and country of employment.
“Okay, then,” I said. “How many Filipino searfarers are listed as employed in South Korea?”
“You can email a request for that information,” I was told, and then provided an email address.
Feeling defeated, I placed one last call to Marina, related what happened, and asked the representative (a different one than whom I had talked with earlier) if he could at least make an educated guess; after all, since Marina is this country’s agency charged with maintaining and enforcing regulations in line with the 1978 International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers, every Filipino seafarer is theoretically known to the agency.
“Specifically, I really do not know,” he explained. “But from what we hear, I would say at least several hundred people,” are facing an uncertain future, now that their employer is one step from outright liquidation.
“Did you try calling POEA?” he asked.
The seeming detachment of government functionaries from logical reality is a gold mine of material for amusing anecdotes, but my frustration was not just at finding it difficult to obtain information to write a good news story, but also at the implications of the government’s cluelessness for real people. Each of those “several hundred” seafarers likely has a family, which means there could be a couple thousand people whose livelihood has evaporated.
While the government over a period of a couple decades has put much effort and many resources into institutionalizing the export of human beings, it hasn’t given nearly as much thought into re-importing those people when they run into trouble in distant lands, at least not until it becomes a crisis as it did recently in Saudi Arabia where several thousand OFWs have been stranded for months after losing their jobs.
Not to put too fine a point on it, having essentially made the process of obtaining employment outside the country a government jobs program, the government has a duty to know where, exactly, those who it obliges to go through the program are employed, and what may broadly affect their welfare.
And that is simply one or two agencies out of hundreds that try the patience of ordinary people trying to accomplish something every day, and facing all manner of consequences for being unable to do so. If he did nothing else every day of his presidency, Duterte would not be able to fix all that in the six years allotted to him. But anything he is able to accomplish would be progress, and if it’s the kind of progress that keeps a few hundred families from worrying whether or not they’ll be able to pay the rent, then it will be a job well done.