UNDERSPENDING is so rampant in the government that even funds intended for distressed overseas Filipino workers are reportedly not being spent properly despite thousands of OFWs needing legal assistance.
Senator Grace Poe, a member of the Senate committee on Labor, Employment and Human Resources Development, over the weekend said that of the 7,638 OFWs who had been charged and detained as of 2015, only 252 were assisted by the government, particularly the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), in 2014.
Of the total number of distressed OFWs, 90 are on death row.
“There is an evident disconnect between the number of OFWs in distress and the number of those [who]received legal assistance,” Poe said in a statement.
The independent presidential candidate pointed out that despite the existence of the Legal Assistance Fund (LAF) for OFWs, the number of workers receiving legal assistance remains low.
In fact, Poe said, of the P100 million allotted for LAF in the 2015 General Appropriations Act (GAA), only half of the fund was disbursed.
Under Republic Act 10022, the law that amended the “Migrant Workers and Overseas Filipinos Act of 1995,” LAF will be used exclusively to provide legal services to migrant workers and overseas Filipinos in distress.”
The Legal Assistance Fund will be used for payment of fees of foreign lawyers to be hired by the government, bail bonds to secure temporary releases and other litigation expenses.
“Such underspending violates Special Provision 11 of the GAA, which ensures the “efficient and effective utilization of the LAF,” Poe said.
The senator raised the need for consulates and embassies to inform OFWs in their areas about the legal assistance being provided by the government because there are still many OFWs unaware of the LAF.
These Philippine missions, she said, should prepare a module with an easy-to-understand step-by-step procedure that can guide Filipino workers seeking legal assistance abroad.
“The government must actively represent Filipinos abroad and intervene in their cases, instead of just relying on executive clemency. We need to have a core legal team within the DFA and we must tap the LAF to make sure every Filipino is protected, wherever he may be,” Poe said.
According to the senator, legal services abroad costs a lot, especially for overseas workers.
In the Middle East, for example, where a majority of the OFWs work, a competent private counsel for criminal cases is worth $6,000 (P283,000) while court fees and bail bonds to secure temporary release are each worth $5,000 (P2236,00) per accused.
Aside from LAF, Poe also questioned the status of the Assistance to Nationals (ATN) Fund, which is intended for temporary shelter, basic necessities, emergency medical treatment and repatriation of OFWs.
She said the DFA was given P350 million for the ATN Fund for 2015 but only P162 million has been disbursed from January to July benefiting 3,459 OFWs.