Senate panel ends hearing on proposed department for OFWs

Published May 10, 2021, 6:39 PM

by Vanne Elaine Terrazola

The Senate labor committee wrapped up on Monday, May 10, its deliberation on the proposed creation of the Department for Overseas Filipinos (DOFIL).

Senator Joel Villanueva speaks during a Senate hearing on February 24, 2020. (Senate PRIB/Henzberg Austria)

Senator Joel Villanueva, committee chairman, said the DOFIL, if created, must respond to the needs of the overseas Filipino workers (OFW) following the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic.

“The design of DOFIL should meet the country’s need of navigating a post-pandemic world that will be challenging to OFWs. By the time the DOFIL will be in full operation, it will be a ‘changed world’. And we are not designing tomorrow’s agency on the specs and the needs of yesterday,” Villanueva said as he ordered the formation of a technical working group to finalize the committe’s report on the bill creating the DOFIL.

“COVID 19 has changed our economic landscape. If local industries are retooling for a post-pandemic era, then a sector which makes up 10 percent of the economy need to be protected in a changed work,” he said in a separate statement.

Villanueva acknowledged the clamor for a separate agency to handle migrant Filipino affairs, as well as apprehensions on its creation.

During the hearing, senators expressed concern that the DOFIL could cause red tape due to issues in its structure.

The DOFIL would integrate the Office of the Undersecretary for Migrant Workers’ Affairs (OUMWA) under the Department of Foreign Affairs; the Commission on Filipinos Overseas (CFO) under the Office of the President; the International Labor Affairs Bureau (ILAB) and National Reintegration Center for OFWs (NCRO) under the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE), and the International Social Services Office (ISSO) under the Department of Social Welfare and Development.

The Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) and the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) will be moved from the DOLE to the DOFIL as attached agencies.

Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon raised its possible budgetary impacts, particularly when Congress starts discussing proposed appropriations in the 2022 national budget.

Sen. Imee Marcos, meanwhile, questioned the point of creating the DOFIL when the POEA and OWWA would retain their structure.

“Isn’t it the point of OFW services? Hindi ba dapat siya ang core ng DOFIL (Should they be the core of the DOFIL)?” Marcos said.

Senator Nancy Binay also zeroed in on the possible slow down that the DOFIL would cause in connection with aiding distressed OFWs, specifically in accessing funds for the government’s Assistance to Nationals (ATN) program.

With the creation of the DOFIL, ATN funds lodged under the DFA will be transferred to the new department.

ATN officers representing the DOFIL shall be in charge in releasing the funds. Until officers are designated in Philippine embassies, part of the ATN allocation should remain with the DFA as “consular assistance fund”.

Binay noted that DOFIL will not be recognized in the other countries, but since Philippine ambassadors would no longer have authority over ATN funds, it “would probably delay assistance to OFWs”.

Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles, for the administration’s part, said that the creation of DOFIL would aid in the “easier coordination” among concerned offices and agencies relating to concerns of migrant Filipinos. He insisted that the agencies will comply with their so-called “one country” approach.

The DOFIL, he said, is the government priority among the new agencies being proposed.

Villanueva maintained that the Senate will not approve the proposed DOFIL in haste even as President Duterte already certified the measure as urgent.

“We are not gunning for a karatula change na ilalagay lang ang department or lipat-bahay ng mga (superficial change that we will just put departments or transfer) agencies under one roof,” he said.