WHEN 35-year-old Saudi-based OFW Joselito Zapanta was beheaded in Saudi Arabia in December 2015, for all the number of agencies professing to be serving our OFWs, I was the only one present at the family residence in Pampanga to inform them of the sad news. And I’m not even from the government.
Having a single department where the mandate is clear and everyone in it held accountable for delivering such services to our modern-day heroes would have made a huge difference.
So I humbly submit that yes, we do need a separate department to manage labor migration using a developmental, meaning rights-based and empowering lens.
But won’t this be the last generation of OFWs?
If it is, then having such a department will not impede this phenomenal turn-around from taking place. It can even help accelerate the process, hence a developmental approach. By the way, my father, the late Foreign Affairs Secretary Blas Ople, who was labor secretary during the onset of overseas employment, had a similar aspiration. Sadly, he never saw this take place in his lifetime. I fervently hope that the Duterte administration will be able to get us closer to this dream.
There are already so many agencies looking after our OFWs. Why create a new one?
It makes sense to pull all these agencies into one department under the guidance and leadership of a single Cabinet Secretary. For example, why does each agency have its own set of regional offices catering to the same constituency? As a result, OFWs and their families go from one office to another, and eventually end up traveling to Metro Manila to get clearer and more tangible results. “Turfing” is also a problem, especially in times of crises.
What will happen to the personnel of those agencies that would be folded into the new department? Government reorganization is always a painful and difficult process. Any law that would create such a department would have to include provisions for the welfare of affected employees such as lateral transfers, early retirement options, or re-tooling for absorption in a different capacity.
Some worry that creating an entire department would be an admission that the government’s labor export policy is here to stay.
If you ask an overseas job applicant why he or she wants to work abroad, I doubt if you’ll hear this response: “Oh, because we have a labor export policy.” Our workers choose to work overseas because the salaries in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, and yes, the Middle East are much higher compared to what we have in the Philippines. They continue to leave because it is so difficult to land a local job especially when you go past the age of 35. Some leave to escape domestic problems, whether at the national or household level. Leaving is always a personal decision.
Indeed, the social costs to the Diaspora are immense. Marriages failing, children left unsupervised, debts mounting when lifestyles change. Those are just examples of the ill effects of migration here at home.
So, why create a department to promote such social ills? Because people tend to go where the jobs are, and all these social problems have deep economic roots. It is the absence of any agency devoted 24/7 to the interests of our overseas workers and their families that have made us constantly blind and helpless in dealing with these social costs.
The current bureaucratic set-up is geared more towards the departure of workers rather than on planning their safe and successful return. The pending bills on this issue underscore the importance of OFW family services and reintegration programs while seeking to harmonize onsite services.
For example, House Bill 192 authored by a former overseas worker, ACTS-OFW party-list Rep. John Bertiz, advocates the transfer of the National Reintegration Center for OFWs, a minuscule office attached to the Overseas Workers’ Welfare Administration, which in turn is attached to the Department of Labor and Employment, to the direct supervision of the Office of the Secretary under the proposed department on migration and development.
The one-stop OFW centers under the labor department are solid accomplishments. We do need more of those. However, these are processing centers, meant to cut red tape and help our OFWs accomplish more under one roof when applying for jobs. They have nothing to do with policymaking or program development. These centers do not a department make.
I favor creating a new department that would bring about policy coherence and cohesion, clarity of vision, intentions and programs, and a quicker response time to the needs and concerns of our modern-day heroes.
It’s about giving our OFWs and their families a home of their own in the government bureaucracy, and a clear and permanent voice at the level of the Cabinet.