By Mario B. Casayuran
Government must assist all Filipinos in distress, especially those abroad, whether they are documented or undocumented, Senator Christopher Lawrence “Bong” Go said on Thursday.
Go, chairman of the Senate health and demography committee, issued the call, during a virtual hearing Wednesday (June 24) of the Senate Committee on Labor, Employment and Human Resources Development attended by other senators and officials of concerned government agencies.
He sought answers from the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) on the assistance they extended to even undocumented OFWs who are affected by the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic.
Some 300,000 overseas Filipinos rendered jobless by the pandemic are expected to return to the Philippines from June to August.
“What kind of assistance are we extending to undocumented OFWs? To date, how many of them have been repatriated? How long will it take to repatriate our undocumented OFWs (Overseas Filipino Workers)? Ano ba ang mga nakikita ninyong problema tungkol dito?’’ he asked. (What are the problems you have seen regarding this?)
DOLE Secretary Silvestre Bello III responded, saying that they are prioritizing the provision of assistance to documented OFWs as they are the ones who, technically, fall under the jurisdiction of the DOLE.
Bello assured, however, that they would also extend assistance to undocumented OFWs once documented OFWs have been assisted.
Bello said that the documented workers enjoy priority in the distribution of the P2.5 billion cash assistance approved by President Duterte. He said these workers lost their jobs or they can no longer work due to lockdown.
Bello also appealed to the lawmakers to help the labor department secure funding for the cash assistance for OFWs as requests for aid have already exceeded DOLE’s target.
He said that from 250,000 to more than 500,000 migrant workers seeking government assistance.
Go, then, implored the DOLE not to neglect undocumented OFWs, saying that they are also Filipinos and that the government is mandated to assist them, especially now that they are in distress.
He emphasized the need to support all our compatriots who are now in distress due to crisis worldwide, especially since President Duterte has said that no Filipino shall be left behind in terms of assistance from the government.
Responding to Go’s queries, Bello said that the 24,000 OFWs reportedly stranded in Metro Manila were stuck while waiting for their COVID-19 test results.
He said that the Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF) on Emerging Infectious Diseases streamlined the repatriation and health protocols in response to the President’s directives.
Bello cited joint efforts of concerned agencies that enabled the return to their homes not just 24,000 but 25,000 OFWs.
“Based on this experience, ang ginawa namin sa IATF na nagkaroon ng usapan na ‘pag dumating ang OFWs (we have agreed in the IATF that when the OFWs arrive), longest they should stay here (Metro Manila) is five days. Fifth day, dapat ipauwi na sa final destination. Ganun na ang bagong protocol ngayon (they should be sent to their final destination. That’s the new protocol now),” Bello added.
The labor secretary also mentioned that the IATF is notified in advance if an OFW is returning to the country so they could immediately coordinate with their receiving LGUs.
Go pointed out the importance of ensuring that the LGUs are willing and prepared to accept their returning province mates. He reiterated the need for proper coordination with the local government to ensure the safety and welfare of the returning workers.
According to IATF officials, when the OFWs arrive in the country, they would be subjected to a COVID-19 test and will be accommodated in partner-hotels. Once they tested negative, they would be sent home to their provinces.
Go also sought answers from the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) as to the status of deployment for Filipino seafarers and other related matters.
Responding to Go’s queries, Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) head Bernard Olalia reported that they already started the consultation process with a maritime industry tripartite consultative council on issues of Filipino seafarers including flexible work arrangements and reduction of their wages.
Olalia also mentioned that labor standards below minimum could not be approved by POEA without tripartite consultation.
Meanwhile, founder and current president of the Blas F. Ople Policy Center Susan Ople expressed her support in pushing for a dedicated agency to handle OFW concerns which is in line with Go’s proposed measure establishing a Department for Overseas Filipinos.
“Kung may iisang department po sana, madaling ma-monitor….But ngayon kasi, we have to deal with the reality na maraming departments ang may kanya kanyang pondo,’’ she said. (If there is only one department, it’s easy to monitor…But now, we have to deal with the reality that there are several departments with their own respective funds). So, we just want to affix ‘yung (the) accountability.)
Filed in July last year, Senate Bill (SB) 202, or the Department of Overseas Filipinos Act of 2019, seeks to address concerns of overseas Filipinos. The bill proposes that government agencies dealing with OFW matters and concerns be transferred to a single department to be established.