DETAILS are emerging about the proposed scope and responsibilities of the Department of Overseas Filipino Workers (DOFW), which would be created by legislation and is currently being debated in Congress. The ideas sound like promising solutions to the unwieldy and sometimes ineffective institutional framework for OFW concerns at present. That will not matter, however, if the new DOFW is allowed to go the way of so many other good ideas: grand in concept but disappointing in execution.
The DOFW would serve as an umbrella agency for the various OFW-related regulatory activities and services that are now managed by several agencies such as the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) and the Overseas Workers’ Welfare Administration (OWWA). The creation of a single, dedicated department to administer OFW affairs is an idea that has been proposed repeatedly for years but has not gained much traction until now, inspired in part by several recent high-profile cases of distressed OFWs in different countries.
Some of the features of the DOFW that have either already been included in the couple of enabling bills filed in Congress or have been proposed in technical working group deliberations include the establishment of an Overseas Labor Relations Commission (OLRC), a counterpart of the existing National Labor Relations Commission (NLRC) that deals with employer-employee disputes in domestic companies; the establishment of a Foreign Employment Practice Liability Insurance fund; the enhanced training for overseas labor officers and attachés; and the establishment of protocols for hiring attorneys in host countries to assist OFWs in legal matters.
The OLRC would handle disputes between OFWs and foreign employers as an arbitrator, within the bounds of the laws of the country where the OFW is located, and any pertinent labor agreements between the Philippine and host country governments. The Foreign Employment Practice Liability Insurance fund would serve as protection for both OFWs who have monetary claims against foreign employers and Philippine recruitment agencies, who are often liable under the current Joint and Solidarity Liability insurance scheme administered by the POEA.
These two proposed features of the new DOFW are potentially very valuable tools in protecting OFWs from abuse by overseas employers and recruiters, but they are also extremely complex due the variety of laws and conditions pertaining to OFWs in different countries around the world. In order to be effective, their terms of reference within whatever law is eventually passed to create the DOFW must be flexible enough to allow for differences in rules in different places. It will not do, in other words, to try to mandate a “one size fits all” approach to handling OFW complaints because other countries are rightfully as sensitive about their sovereignty as we are.
Another issue that should be clearly addressed by the enabling law for the DOFW is the obvious fact that it will supersede or duplicate much of the work of existing agencies. If there is a DOFW, one that has been mindfully created and given terms to allow it to operate efficiently, then there should no longer be a need for agencies like the POEA or the OWWA. Abolishing those agencies, however, might be a delicate political matter. They are among the largest agencies in the government and employ a vast number of people. Those who cannot be absorbed into the new agency, or be given reasonable alternative employment elsewhere in the bureaucracy, will need to be properly supported with job placement or financial assistance. This will add a considerable cost to the development of the DOFW, at least in the short term, which Congress and the administration will have to take into account.