MANILA – Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III said Sunday government should not use funds of the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration to provide for the emergency needs of displaced and repatriated Filipino migrant workers in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic.
“They are sending more than $30 billion a year sa atin… Nakakatulong sa ekonomiya natin. Kaya naman, for once, pay back naman tayo. ‘Wag nating galawin yung pera nila,” Bello said on ABS-CBN’s TeleRadyo.
(They are sending more than $30 billion a year to us… It’s helping our economy. That’s why, for once, we should pay them back. Let’s not touch their money.)
The OWWA has asked for a P5 billion supplemental budget from Congress to prolong its fund’s sustainability as it warned of a “largely looming” bankruptcy should it continue to spend for the food, accommodation and transportation of repatriated workers beyond 2021.
At a Senate hearing last week, OWWA chief Hans Leo Cacdac said the agency’s P18.79-billion fund is expected to be reduced to P10 billion by the end of this year, and plunge below P1 billion by the end of 2021 should OFWs continue to be displaced and repatriated.
Bello said OWWA funds should just be spent for its members’ needs, such as if they plan to put up businesses or for their children’s education.
“Dapat gobyerno ang magbigay ng pera para matiyak natin na lahat ng kailangan ng ating mga OFW ay matugunan natin… Bakit naman, for the first time na hihingi naman sila ng tulong, nangangailangan sila ng tulong, bakit naman kailangan nating galawin yung pondo nila?... ‘Wag natin gamitin ang pera na ‘yan sa panahong ito,” the labor chief said.
(Government should be the one providing funds to ensure that all the needs of our OFWs are addressed… For the first time that they need our assistance, why would be touch their funds?... Let’s not use that fund at this time.)
Susan Ople of the Blas Ople Policy Center, speaking also on TeleRadyo, laments that the OWWA fund, which took some four decades to reach around P19 billion, could possibly get depleted in just two years’ time.
“Government really has to step in. Ang panawagan namin, ipatawag na yung LEDAC (Legislative-Executive Development Advisory Council). Mag-usap na yung executive at Kongreso. Magpasa na ng supplemental budget,” Ople said.
(Our call is for the LEDAC to convene. The executive branch and Congress should start talking. Pass a supplemental budget.)
Ople also noted the report last week of the Department of Foreign Affairs regarding the possibility of its P1-billion ‘assistance-to-nationals’ fund running out by August if repatriation operations entailing chartering of flights continue.
Ople, a former labor undersecretary, suggested that DFA should just focus on all repatriation efforts (from departure of OFWs from their respective places of origin, up to arrival in the Philippines), while the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) attend to such needs related to welfare as food, medicine and sheltering of stranded OFWs abroad.
Upon arrival of OFWs in the country, the Department of Interior and Local Government and OWWA take charge until they reach their respective home provinces.
“Yun pong hatian ng trabaho, kailangan talagang klaruhin para yung accountability at yung budget, klaro din po,” Ople said.
(The division of work should be made clear so that the accountability and budget will also be clear.)
“Ang pinakamasakit sa lahat, kung maramdaman ng OFW na tinitipid sila sa kabila ng napakalaki nilang naitulong sa ekonomiya natin in the good and in the best of times,” she said.
(What hurts the most is when the OFWs feel government is trying to economize despite their big contribution to our economy in the good and in the best of times.)
“Kung hindi umaksyon yung gobyerno, biglang mag-pull back ang DFA, mag-pull back ang OWWA dahil wala na silang pondo, ang sakit sakit sakit po n’un sa ating mga bagong bayani.”
(If government does not act, if the DFA and OWWA suddenly pull back due to lack of funds, that is very painful for our modern-day heroes.)
Ople said the “humanitarian crisis” involving OFWs goes beyond their displacement from work.
“Habang stranded sila, yung employers nila, hindi na rin nakakayanan na pakainin sila dahil lugi na yung mga negosyo eh, lalo na kung domestic workers. Minsan, tini-turn over na lang yan sa shelter ng embassy,” she said.
(While they are stranded, their employers cannot continue providing food for them anymore because their businesses are already affected. This is worse for domestic workers. Sometimes, they are just turned over to the Philippine embassy’s shelter.)
“Yung iba dun, nagkakasakit na po. Merong iba, nag-suicide na… Yung mental anguish, yung financial difficulty, talagang… nakakabiyak talaga ng puso.”
(Others there are getting sick. There’s also suicide… The mental anguish, the financial difficulty… is really heartbreaking.)
Ople hopes more chartered flights to bring home the stranded OFWs will be considered, utilizing even airports outside of Manila for arrival.
According to Bello, about 80,000 OFWs are stranded in other countries, awaiting repatriation, while some 63,000 others have already been brought home, as of Saturday.
“Mas magandang dito sila, kesa nandoon. Ang binabayaran ng gobyerno doon, dolyar, para sa upkeep nila. Dito, pwedeng mag-bayanihan spirit tayo at magtulungan bilang mga Pilipino, para pakainin, bigyan ng gamot. At least, one step closer na sila sa pamilya nila,” Ople said.
(It’s better for them to be here than stay there. Government is spending dollars for their upkeep there. Here, we, as Filipinos , can exercise the bayanihan spirit and help them for their food and medicines. At least, they’re already one step closer to their families.)