House panel approves bill expanding legal assistance fund to overseas Pinoys

The House Committee on Overseas Workers Affairs has approved, subject to style and “enhancement”, on Wednesday, Jan. 25, a substitute bill that seeks to expand the legal fund provided for distressed overseas Filipinos.

Overseas Filipino workers (Jansen Romero/File Photo/ MANILA BULLETIN)

The approval came during the deliberation on the substitute bill to consolidate House Bills (HBs) No. 1350 and 1673, or “Expanding the use of the Legal Assistance Fund, amending for the purpose Section 26 of RA 8042, otherwise known as the Migrant Workers and Overseas Filipinos Act of 1995, as amended.”

Kabayan Party-list Rep. Ron Salo, chair of the House Committee on Overseas Workers Affairs, shared that there were no opposing comments based on previous discussions on the bill.

However, he and Bulacan 6th District Rep. Salvador Pleyto raised some concerns on the source of the legal fund to be extended to the OFWs because of the overlapping functions of the Department of Foreign Affairs’ (DFA) Legal Assistance Fund (LAF) and the Department of Migrant Workers’ (DMW) Aksyon fund.

“Doon po sa discussions natin (In our discussions) previously wala naman pong nag-o-opose dito (no one’s opposing this). But I understand there are certain clarifications that we want to make,” Salo said, adding that the DFA and DMW committed to submit their “joint comments” to enhance the proposed amendments to Republic Act 8042, or the “Migrant Workers and Overseas Filipinos Act of 1995.”

“Ang (My) concern ko lang din po dito (here is), of course, naka-lodge pa rin ito sa (this is lodged to the) DFA, so ang concern natin kung kanino ba talaga natin ila-lodge itong (our concern is to whom should we lodge this) legal assistance fund kung ang pinag-uusapan po natin (if we are talking about) that this is intended specifically for our OFWS. Nasa DFA pa rin ba? O ililipat ba ito sa DMW (Should it still be with the DFA? Or should we transfer it to the DMW)?,” the lawmaker asked.

Pleyto expressed “support” specifically on HB 1350 by Tarlac 2nd District Rep. Christian Yap, who proposed that the legal assistance fund shall be made available to distressed OFWs “from the time of the investigation, detention, arrest, charging or indictment of the migrant worker or overseas Filipino all the way to the trial proper, and at all levels of appeal thereafter.”

“We all know cases don’t actually start at the trial proper. May mga kaso ng nagsisimula sa imbestigasyon, meron din nagsisimula sa (There are cases that start at the investigation, there are also cases that start at the) warrant of arrest,” Pleyto said.

“This is also a crucial point for our Filipinos abroad considering that it’s not your country at malalayo po sila sa kanilang mga pamilya pagkatapos nilang maexperensya ‘yung mga (and they are far from their families then they experienced) abuses after filing cases against them,” he added.

The lawmaker stressed that it is during these times that OFWS “need the protection from our government the most.”

HB 1673 filed by Aklan 2nd District Teodorico Haresco Jr., on the other hand, also pushed “to bolster the scope of use of the LAF to include the time of the commencement of the complaint all the way to the trial proper until the execution of judgment up to all levels ofappeal a distressed Filipino migrant worker can avail.”

Foreign Affairs Assistant Secretary Paul Cortes also expressed the department’s support for the bill, but also wished to clarify the “wording” under RA 11641, which created the DMW, because the term used there referred to the DFA’s LAF.

He explained that the DFA’s terms made a “distinction” between the Assistance-to-National (ATN) fund and the LAF, while DMW’s Aksyon fund covers all assistance provided to OFWs.

DMW Undersecretary Hans Cacdac also agreed with Cortes.

“But it’s (proposed bill) silent on RA 11641 so we have the same recommendation na tingnan lang ito (look at this) with the current provision of RA 11641 especially in relation to the DMW responsibilities with the Aksyon fund,” he said.

Salo asked the committee secretary to “capture” in wordings that the LAF would also include the Aksyon fund from the DMW.

For 2023, the DMW’s Aksyon fund has a P2.1 billion legal and medical assistance budget, while the DFA’s ATN has a P1-billion provision and the LAF with P259 million.