HINTING of widespread anomaly, the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) on Thursday called for an audit of how the Bureau of Immigration disbursed almost P1 billion in overtime pay to its employees in 2016.

Budget Secretary Benjamin Diokno said he had asked the Commission on Audit (COA) to examine the bureau’s express lane fund, which for the past several years was used by the bureau for the overtime pay of hundreds of personnel.

Diokno’s call came amid the bureau’s insistence on using the fund to address its manpower shortage that has resulted in long queues in immigration counters at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport and other major airports.

The shortage came after immigration officers filed mass leaves in protest of the DBM’s order to remove their overtime pay, based on the President’s veto on the use of the fund.

The DBM chief pointed out that the presidential veto was not the problem but the bureau itself, claiming its officials were “protecting a corrupt system.”

Diokno disclosed that the bureau collected P1.4 billion from the express lane last year and spent P785 million on overtime pay for 1,693 employees, hiring of confidential agents and job-order contracts.

“I wanted to know how they spent the P785 million for 1,693 employees. It’s quite impossible” he stressed. “You cannot charge beyond 50 percent in overtime out of your regular salary. But their overtime pay appears to be four to five times their regular pay,” he said in a news conference.

Diokno also pointed out that the DBM had provided P235 million for overtime pay in the national budget, but the bureau insisted on the return of the express lane fund.

“We have not received any request. All they have to do is request. That’s the process,” he said, adding that the DBM had also provided for the creation of almost 1,000 positions to augment the bureau’s workforce.

Diokno dismissed the bureau’s position that it would take six months to train new immigration officers, saying it’s “not rocket science.”

He noted that other countries have self-service lanes wherein returning local residents need not line up at immigration counters.

Earlier, Immigration Commissioner Jaime Morente invoked the policy of the late senator Miriam Defensor Santiago, who asserted in February 1988 when she was immigration chief that employees of the bureau should be granted honoraria or allowances outside of the national budget.

Morente explained that the express lane fund was created for overtime charges collected from “other persons served,” based on Section 7A of Commonwealth Act 613, otherwise known as the Philippine Immigration Law of 1940.

For three decades, the honorarium or allowance called “overtime pay” served as a much-needed augmentation for the low salaries of regular employees of the bureau, he added.

He also pointed out that then president Joseph Estrada approved on March 8, 1999, the grant of honoraria or allowance for detailed, contractual or all non-organic personnel or consultants from the fund.

Morente said the proposed solution of creating new positions won’t address the problem and alleviate the economic plight of bureau employees.

Lawmakers back bureau

Some lawmakers are in favor of restoring the overtime pay of the employees of the Bureau of Immigration.

House justice panel Chairman and Rep. Reynaldo Umali of Oriental Mindoro as well as Representatives Tobias Tiangco of Navotas and Gus Tambunting of Parañaque made the call amid growing congestion at the airport terminals.

The lawmakers cited Section 7A of the Philippine Immigration Act which reads: “Immigration employees may be assigned by the Commissioner of Immigration to do overtime work at rates fixed by him when the service rendered is to be paid for by shipping companies and airlines or other persons served.”

“The current law allows it. I am not sure on where Secretary Diokno’s statements are anchored. The issue here is that giving them overtime pay is legal, so he (Diokno) may not be the authority on the matter,” Umali said in a text message.

Tiangco said: “The Philippine Immigration Act protects the right of our immigration personnel to receive payment for overtime services. By law, our government is duty-bound to uphold such work benefit.”

Tambunting said “this particular immigration overtime issue puts into focus the fact that the government has a lot to answer for regarding our labor laws. As long as there is a legal basis, it should be allowed.”

WITH REPORTS FROM LLANESCA T. PANTI