Nearly 450,000 overseas Filipinos (OFs), mostly from the Middle East, have returned home as of February this year after losing their jobs abroad due to COVID-19, according to Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) officials.
They expect the number to increase further — a reasonable expectation as COVID-19 continues to wreak havoc on economies around the world, including elimination of jobs.
But as the number of retrenched or jobless ex-OFWs continues to rise, are they being assisted well to become productive members of society through the government’s OFW reintegration program? Sadly and pathetically for OFWs who have gone home after losing their jobs overseas, reintegration aid appears more imaginary than real.
From all indications, reintegration of retrenched ex-OFWs isn’t being given high priority by relevant government agencies, specifically DOLE and OWWA (Overseas Workers Welfare Administration). The appalling lack of regard for reintegrating displaced OFWs back into Philippine society is amply reflected by the following indicators:
1] Lack of publicity in the media and in government announcements of the latter’s concern to reintegrate productively back to society overseas Filipinos who have lost their jobs overseas in the wake of COVID-19.
2] Inexplicable lack of any updates on the P2 billion OFW reintegration funding program launched in June 2011 by the government specifically for the purpose of funding livelihood projects to be set up by returning OFWs. Neither one of three government agencies – Land Bank of the Philippines (LBP), Development Bank of the Philippines (DBP) and the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) – has bothered since COVID-19’s outbreak in 2020 to say anything or provide any update on lending to ex-OFWs who wish to put up livelihood projects. This inexplicable silence raises more questions than answers on the government’s interest to reintegrate back to society OFWs who have lost their jobs overseas.,
This inaction and apparent apathy comes at the worst time when there is a very critical and pressing need to generate as many economic activities as possible across the country to address the worsening hunger and poverty across the country as the economy continues to suffer from COVID-19.
What needs to happen for the government’s reintegration program to provide ex-OFWs or returning OFWs with genuinely meaningful and helpful assistance? The following critically important things need to be adopted and put in place:
1] Undertake a major revamp of the ongoing P2-billion OFW reintegration program, ideally after getting inputs from OFWs with finance and entrepreneurship backgrounds. Launched in June 2011, the P2-billion OFW fund reintegration program seems to have vanished into thin air!
2] Put in place mentorship support to raise the rate of success of first-time entrepreneurs and this reintegration program. How can newbie entrepreneurs succeed if they don’t have mentors to support and help them. A case in point: how can a baby learn to walk without the support of its parents? Mentors though need to have actual business operations experience, not merely academics spewing out theories from books. Undoubtedly, first-time entrepreneurs are very likely to fail unless assisted by ex or current entrepreneurs.
3] Provide ex-OFWs much easier access to government credit. What’s the point of having the P2- billion OFW reintegration fund since 2011 if borrowers don’t have access to it? It’s crazy! Unfortunately, lead lender Land Bank doesn’t want to lend to borrowers with start-up livelihood projects or those that will start from scratch. Also, LBP doesn’t want to take risks in its lending. It requires land titles as collateral or security for loan and a profit track record of at least three years in the borrower’s business. With its stringent requirements, LBP effectively screens out most ex-OFW borrowers. [This writer should know, I once met with its senior officials and got this unpleasant message loud and clear.]
4] To revive the government’s reintegration program, why not come up with a more innovative credit scheme? If OWWA’s Balik Pilipinas, Balik Kabuhayan can only afford to give ex-OFWs a one-off grant or free money of only P20,000 to start a livelihood project, so be it. But hard questions should be asked: How can a person start a new business with a start-up capital of only P20,000? Isn’t this laughable and ludicrous?
To address lack of funds for aspiring entrepreneurs among ex-OFWs, why not supplement OWWA’s small grant with “soft loans” from Land Bank? Why not ask – or mandate LBP – to set aside an initial P1 billion to P2 billion to provide “soft loans” of at least P100,000 to P150,000 to each ex-OFW? If an ex-OFW gets OWWA’s miniscule grant plus an LBP soft loan, the amount can suffice to set up a small livelihood project.
Asking Land Bank for help to bolster the government’s OFW reintegration program should be considered very seriously. The bank is government-owned and it’s extremely profitable. In 2019, it earned a net profit of P18.51 billion, up 20 percent from P15.48 billion in 2018. In 2020, Land Bank’s net profit stood at P17.1 billion. (The author is a journalist working in Hong Kong)