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03 June 2017

By Daisy Catherine L. Mandap

This could be a good year for OFWs, given the number of concessions promised them recently by the Philippine government.

No more OECs after three months, no more terminal fee integration in their air tickets from the Philippines, direct hiring to be resumed under certain conditions, no more forced contribution to OWWA, and the doubling of emergency financial assistance.

A few weeks ago, both houses of Congress also passed the resolution extending the passport validity from 5 to 10 years. Again, this was supposedly meant to ease the burden on our long-suffering OFWs.

It is all well and good, but, will the promises be kept - without reservations and no alternative impositions being made on our workers?

It has always been our position, even during the past administration, that it would not have taken much effort to bring relief to our long-suffering OFWs. Much of the burden was imposed only in recent years, anyway. And nearly all did nothing for their benefit, but served mainly to enrich the government and other groups, mainly recruiters, at their expense.

We still remember the time when our OFWS, in Hong Kong at least, were not forced to contribute to the already bloated OWWA fund, and yet could expect to get help when necessary.

We still remember the time when the OWWA Medicare fund could be relied on to provide for the health needs of our OFWs and their families back in the Philippines. That disappeared when Php500 million of that money was transferred to Philhealth which does not even see it fit to post staff overseas, making the health benefit it provides to OFWs largely illusory.

We still remember when we could process employment contracts directly with the Consulate, and not be forced to go through employment agencies simply because officials back home deemed their intervention necessary.

More recently, we remember the time when the terminal fee was not included in air tickets from the Philippines so OFWs were spared the trouble, even indignity, of having to queue up just to get the tax-free privilege they were entitled to in the first place.

Over the years, the burden on our migrant workers became so heavy that we could only rage and protest each time some enterprising official came up with yet another ploy to extract more money from them, directly or indirectly.

To add insult to injury, OFWs were always told the new schemes were meant to protect them more.

If our government can't even provide jobs to our workers so that they are forced to leave the country to provide for their families' needs, why, in all conscience, does it keep coming up with new schemes to make  money off them?

How could our government pass on the duty of protecting its citizens abroad to employment agencies, when over the years, these same groups have shown to cause more grief than relief to our workers?

But now we have all these promised concessions to look forward to. We say, it's about time. Our OFWs have been subjected to so much battering in recent years they deserve this much-needed respite.

Still it may not be time to celebrate - yet.

As it is, we see signs that the promised benefits, which are supposed to augur well for  our OFWs, are not what they seem to be.

Take the newly reformulated pledge to do away with the OEC, for example. The promise this time is that there will be no more OECs in two to three months, but OFWs will be issued IDs proving their status, and assure ease of transactions with various government agencies.

OFWs are told that the IDs will be given free to them, but surely some fund will be tapped to produce them? Our guess is that the money will come from the cash-rich OWWA Fund, which by the way, appears to have escaped the scrutiny of our militant groups lately. If this is the case, then our OFWs will effectively still pay for them.

It may also be worthwhile to check out the sponsors of this project, especially the officials and legislators who backed it, as the financial rewards from helping get it off the ground would have been very enticing. Imagine being the linchpin for getting the card issued to millions of OFWs?

In line with this, the promise to set up an OFW Bank later this year is also worth a closer scrutiny. Setting it up could be costly, even with the promise that OFWs will be sold shares eventually. Again, where will the initial funding come from? More importantly, why was there no prior consultation with its supposed beneficial owners?

We have to take these promises with a grain of salt because as our recent experience with the increased SSS pension shows, there could be an onerous condition attached to the promised benefit. In local parlance, a “kabig”. In this particular case, it was the decision to raise monthly contributions where the SSS stands to gain more than give away.

A more recent example is the plan to increase passport fees. For OFWs, the issue is not so much the long waiting time for the document as the highly inflated cost of obtaining it abroad. Now, in the guise of providing them relief, the government has taken moves to extend the document's validity, but at an added cost. By how much is not yet clear.  Still, this is hardly the benefit our OFWs had long waited for.

What our OFWs need now is a sincere and genuine effort to take some of the load off their shoulders, not false or deceitful promises, Having served as the backbone of our economic survival, if not progress, for so long, they deserve no less.

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