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Labatt tells HK agencies, OFW training must be voluntary

25 November 2020

By The SUN 

Dizon (left, with Villafuerte) met with agencies over the training fee issue 

Hong Kong employment agency operators who met with Labor Attaché Melchor Dizon on Tuesday afternoon were told paid training should be voluntary on the part of Filipino domestic workers, according to an industry leader.

The representatives sought the meeting with Labatt Dizon after he said in a recent meeting with Filipino community leaders that Philippine agencies should not charge overseas Filipino workers training fees.

The statement reflected an opinion expressed by Administrator Bernard Olalia of the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration in July this year that agencies which require Hong Kong-bound domestic helpers to undergo training are breaking the law.

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If accurately reported, Dizon’s assurance to the agencies was a climbdown from his earlier firm stance on the issue because in reality, it is the agency that chooses the training center and compels the worker to enlist there, on pain of not being deployed abroad.

Thomas Chan, president of the Hong Kong Union of Employment Agencies, said he and leaders of 10 other groups in the industry attended the one-and-a-half-hour meeting at the Philippine Overseas Labor Office in United Centre, Admiralty.

The meeting was attended by Dizon’s two deputies, Angelica Sunga and Tony Villafuerte.

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“Of course, before clarification with Labatt, agencies in Hong Kong worried as much as their Philippine partners” about Dizon’s statement, Chan said.

“However, it is clearer now because we were told and [it was] confirmed that not all … training with payment are illegal activity,” Chan said.

Chan says agencies were assured not all paid training are illegal 

What is unclear, though, is how agencies can prove that overseas Filipino workers voluntarily agreed to the training, or conversely, for the worker to disprove such a claim.

According to the 2016 Rules of the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration which Administrator Olalia emphasized in a recent letter to Fred Palmiery, head of an agency group in the Philippines, recruiters cannot by law compel OFWs to undergo training.

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If the employer wants to require the worker to undergo training, then the employer or the agency must pay for it, Olalia said.

He further said that OFWs do not have to enroll in any training course as domestic work is not a specialized skill that one has to be trained for. All that is required is for the worker to pass a skills assessment by Tesda (Technical Education and Skills Development Authority) and get an NCII certificate.

If the worker is not confident about passing the skills assessment, he or she can opt to go for training, Olalia said. But that decision, as well as the choice of the training center, should be made by the worker.

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Olalia also very clearly warned agencies that they will be violating the law if they compelled OFWs who are in possession of valid NCIIs to undergo training again before being re-deployed.

Chan said it emerged in the discussions that although training is not compulsory in overseas job application, it is allowed if workers choose to attend such course willingly to improve their skills and boost their confidence to do their domestic duties in Hong Kong.

“The key point of the dispute between the workers and training centers is the voluntary basis. If the workers opt for it voluntarily, then it is fine. If they are forced to do it with evidence, they can complain, of course,” Chan said.

He said, in his opinion, not all agencies are involved in illegal training and that the final definition of the activity depends on evidence and investigation. “We don’t jump into conclusion that all agencies are making money by collecting illegal fees,” he said.

As for the general impression that agencies in the Philippines misinterpreted the POEA rules to make money out of compulsory training, Chan said, “I don’t deny some of them might be involved in this way. However, I believe the Philippines is a country with rule of law. If there’s solid evidence, they will be punished by law.”

Some of the OFWs who claim they were charged illegal training fees

Since Labatt Dizon told Filcom leaders that agencies should not require workers to undergo training and that the workers who paid for such training could file for a refund, the industry has been evidently alarmed.

Last Sunday, an initial group of about 30 workers went to POLO to apply for a refund and many more said they would follow suit in the days ahead.

Chan said Dizon told the agency owners about the claims that the workers had filed. 

The HKUEA head said both agencies in Hong Kong and the Philippines are worried about the impact of a wave of refund claims.

“Since February this year, Philippine agencies, because of the pandemic situation, nearly collapsed due to the suspension of business and deployment. If the refund becomes popular activity, then we [fear] lots of them might close. If there’s large-scale closure, workers in the Philippines will lack the channel to go overseas, not only to Hong Kong, but other parts of the world as well,” Chan said.

He said if all agencies collapse, people who need a job will suffer as well, along with their families.

“An agency is also playing a social function while earning money. Don’t treat all agencies as devils, hahaha!” he said in jest.

Left unsaid is that in the past, direct hiring (or without agency intervention) had worked well for Hong Kong-bound Filipino workers, and should be revisited if agencies are found to skirt well-enunciated government policy.

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