WHEN overseas Filipino workers (OFW) are abroad, they are not only preoccupied with their jobs; they also have to deal with countless issues ranging from employer concerns to family problems. One of the effective ways that government helps our migrant workers deal with these issues is through the creation of foreign posts exclusively for labor matters.
Republic Act 8042, or the Migrant Workers and Overseas Filipino Act of 1995, gave life to the Philippine Overseas Labor Office (POLO)—the foreign station of the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) and the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA). The POLO is headed by a labor attaché (or Labatt, for short), the diplomatic official assigned to our embassies abroad who quarterbacks all activities related to the employment and welfare of our migrant workers overseas.
As part of the POLO, OWWA’s welfare officers (called “Welofs”) and administrative staff are the workhorses of our labor offices’ overseas operations, providing mediation/conciliation services, handling requests for assistance (RAs) from our kababayans arising from non-payment, or delayed payment, of salaries, maltreatment, sexual harassment, unfavorable working/living conditions, and in the Middle East, the non-issuance of “iqama” (residence permit) or exit visa.
OWWA’s Welofs and administrative staff also provide counseling to OFWs who get in touch in person or by phone for various queries related to their employment and stay abroad. In some instances, they are also tasked to bring home (“repatriate”) our migrant workers, which in the Middle East, for instance, involve negotiating with the employers, the police and immigration authorities.
OWWA’s welfare officers and administrative staff are stationed in 31 overseas offices: 10 in Asia, 14 posts in the Middle East and Africa, and seven offices in Europe and the US. These overseas posts are situated in areas or countries where there is a large concentration of Filipino migrant workers.
Adept at multitasking, OWWA’s Welofs and administrative staff conduct hospital visitations of injured or sick kababayan; assist the labor attaché in mediating labor concerns between the OFW and his employer amicably; and sometimes, search, locate, and rescue Filipino workers from their abusive employers at a personal risk to themselves. Because welfare is a 24/7 concern, they are available anytime of the day and every day of the week to provide assistance to Filipino workers in need. As if these were not enough, they also coordinate with the Filipino communities to organize events and training programs, and perform other services that cater to the welfare of the Filipino migrant workers.
Welofs and administrative staff also work double time especially during times of crises, whether natural or man-made. Aside from the regular duties in the post, during natural disasters such as typhoons or earthquakes, Welofs and administrative assess the situation of our OFWs within their area of jurisdiction and provide assistance to those affected and in need of aid.
During man-made crises, such as wars or political uprisings, Welofs make up an integral part of the emergency operations of the Philippine Embassy by preparing the documentation of OFWs who want to be repatriated, fetching OFWs from war-torn areas, and taking steps to bring our countrymen to safer ground.
One such crisis was the “Arab Spring” in 2011, which saw the overthrow of Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak and Libyan despot Muammar Gadhafi as well as the escalation of the civil war in Syria. The resulting chaos in the Middle East called for the immediate mass repatriation of Filipinos migrant workers, especially those in the war-torn areas. In Libya, for instance, some 11,000 OFWs and Filipino nationals were safely repatriated with the assistance of OWWA’s Welofs and administrative staff.
In 2012, OWWA’s Welofs and administrative staff helped repatriate from war-ravaged Syria thousands of migrant workers who availed of the mandatory repatriation program implemented by the government through the Philippine embassy in Damascus, Syria.
OWWA’s overseas post was a major player in the repatriation of thousands of OFWs from Saudi Arabia in 2013, with Welofs and administrative staff helping negotiate with Arab employers in order to secure their Filipino migrant workers’ exit visa – a required immigration document before an OFW can leave the kingdom. This after Saudi Arabia began implementing its “Saudization” (nitaqat) policy calling for the employment of Saudi nationals in private firms.
More recently, because of the declining oil prices in the world market, the Saudi Arabian economy has contracted, forcing many companies to retrench or worse, dismiss employees, leaving thousands of Filipino migrant workers jobless.
To encourage unemployed and illegal workers to go back to their home countries, Saudi Arabia has issued a 90-day amnesty program called a “nation without violations”— designed to allow overstaying and undocumented workers the opportunity to leave the country without any penalty (or blacklisting) so that they can return to the Saudi Arabia legally if they so desire.
Upon getting wind of the amnesty program, Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello 3rd quickly dispatched a rapid response team to Saudi Arabia, composed of high-level DOLE and OWWA officials, to assess the situation and needs of OFWs affected by the program. Bello also deployed an additional DOLE-OWWA augmentation team to Saudi Arabia to assist in processing our kababayan for the amnesty program.
As usual, OWWA’s Welofs and administrative personnel will be at the front lines to serve our Filipino migrant workers and help reunite them with their families and loved ones.