01/13/2008 | 04:07 PM
BY AUBREY MAKILAN, BULATLAT
A migrant group supported a senator's call for congressional oversight of the P10 billion ($246,305,418 at an exchange rate of $1=P40.60) Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) funds - which is being sourced from membership fees levied on overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) - to avoid misuse and prevent the repeat of the $25 membership fee overbilling.
Senate President Manny Villar has called for "stringent oversight" of the P10-billion OWWA funds to ensure that it is used properly and to avoid "lapses" such as the recent overbilling of the $25 fee collected from each departing worker.
The supposed overcharging of OFW membership fee of $25 was reportedly implemented by the Philippine Overseas Employment Agency (POEA). The overcharging emanated from the computation of the POEA, which based the fees to be collected on an exchange rate of P51 to $1. Senate President Manuel Villar Jr questioned this and said the fees should be based on the prevailing exchange rate of P41 to $1, thus, amounting to only P1, 025 instead of the current P1, 275 being collected. The Overseas Workers Welfare Administration said that it reduced the membership fee being collected from OFWs to P1, 044 since January 1, 2008. This, they said, is based on the preceding month's average peso-dollar exchange rate.
"We have to make sure that the fund for overseas workers really works for the improvement of the conditions of our OFWs," said Villar, noting that a system that could check its performance should be in place.
Villar’s proposal is being supported by the United Filipinos in Hong Kong (Unifil-HK). Unifil-HK chairperson Dolores Balladares said that their money in the OWWA should go through serious scrutiny and that the "plundering" of their money must stop.
The Senator said that the OWWA is classified as a government corporation with a budget outside congressional budget review.
"The President, for all her powers, has to go to Congress for money but OWWA with all membership contributions coming from OFWs is exempt (from going through Congressional budget allocations)," he said. "It can allocate and spend its own money without congressional authorization."
The Senate President said that the OWWA funds, at the least, should pass congressional scrutiny like in the case of the National Power Corporation, also a government corporation. The NPC submits its budget to Congress even if the latter does not approve it, he said.
"This way we will have an idea and it becomes part of public record how much of every peso OWWA earns goes to direct services to OFWs and how much goes to overhead expenses, "he said.
But aside from the congressional review, migrant group Unifil-HK also called for the scrapping of the OWWA Omnibus Policies. The policy implemented in 2003, said migrant leader Balladares, "further constricted the funds allocated to the welfare of Filipino migrant workers while, at the same time, strengthening the stranglehold of the government to the funds." She added that the OWWA Omnibus Policies implemented a mandatory per contract collection of membership fee, suspended programs such as the General Financial Assistance Program, and gave the president the opportunity to place more of her people inside the agency governing board.
"The OWWA Omnibus Policies was created for the sole reason of increasing the collection of OWWA and giving freer rein for GMA to dip her hands into the fund, she said, noting that the policy never included provisions to improve services to OFWs who had to go through numerous loops to get assistance from this office.
Balladares said that almost P1 billion ($24,630,541) goes to the OWWA Fund annually but argued that its fund allocation has remained minimal. Worse, she said, the allotment for OFW direct services is greatly overshadowed by its cost of operations.
OWWA started as a "welfare and training fund for overseas workers" created by former President Marcos in the late 1970s. It has grown into an agency with total audited assets of P9.95 billion ($245,073,891) as of end 2006. In 2005, it collected P1.258 billion ($30,985,221) from 994,191 about-to-be-deployed workers with the promise that for a $25-fee, a member will receive up to P100, 000 ($2,463) in disability benefits and P200, 000 ($4,926) in accidental death benefits.
But Villar said that this year, total payout in insurance benefits reached only P163 million ($4,014,778), an amount dwarfed by OWWA's payroll and operating expenses. The argument for stricter "executive and legislative oversight" of OWWA, he said, was put forward after audit observations made by the Commission on Audit for fiscal year 2006.
Balladares noted that only $2 from every $25 that migrant workers pay is allocated to direct services to OFWs, while the big chunk of the money goes to operational expenses, controversial investments and unaudited appropriations, citing the Smokey Mountain Rehabilitation Project and the Middle East Preparedness Team funds for the evacuation of Filipinos from Iraq that allegedly never happened.
Balladares also said that the transfer of the OWWA Medicare Fund to PhilHealth was also anomalous. In February 2003, she said, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo issued Executive Order 182 ordering the transfer following a letter by then PhilHealth president Francisco Duque allegedly saying that the transfer will have a significant bearing on the 2004 elections.
"The government's handling of the OWWA fund stinks to high heavens and must be addressed as soon as possible," she said.
In the proposed congressional review of the OFW money, Unifil-HK encouraged the Congress to involve OFW groups in uncovering the alleged "mismanagement and misappropriation of the OWWA Fund and eventually, in instituting reforms in the OWWA that can genuinely benefit OFWs," such as a system of check and balance in the management of the OWWA fund and placing more OFW representatives recommended by OFW organizations to the OWWA board of trustees.
Aside from the possible misappropriations, Villar said, uncaring foreign post personnel also aggravate the plight of distressed OFWs.
Villar called for the identification and punishment of embassy and consular officials and personnel who refuse assistance or display incompetence in extending help to Filipinos, which further aggravates the condition of distressed OFWs around the world.
The Senate President received a letter from the Center for Migrant Advocacy (CMA) accusing some members of the diplomatic corps of bad attitude, negligence and incompetence in attending to the cases of Filipino migrant workers in distress.
CMA cited the case of Teresita Santos, a sewer who was gang raped in August 2005 by five Saudi nationals. The perpetrators were found guilty and were sentenced to four years of imprisonment and 500 lashes each. But Santos accused Philippine consulate personnel in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia of depriving her of proper legal advice that allegedly almost caused her to lose her case.
In a letter-complaint submitted to the Department of Foreign Affairs, Santos said it was only through the help of fellow OFWs that she was able to file a case against her perpetrators. Moreover, she accused Assistance to Nationals personnel of blocking the hearings.
Villar also cited the case of Julian Camat, Hermilo Ramos and Napoleon Fabregas, who worked for a cargo handling company in Jeddah. They were sentenced by a Saudi court to one and a half years of imprisonment for stealing computers in January, 2003. But, Villar said, the three actually served four years and four months in detention because of the alleged negligence of the Consulate General in Jeddah.
"The seeming insensitiveness and indifference of a number of our diplomatic and consular officials and personnel have been reported and they are destroying the image and dignity of a larger, more committed, devoted and excellent public servants in foreign service," Villar said.
CMA also presented the case of Esnaira Angin, a Muslim woman from Maguindanao, who was one of the four OFWs in Dubai whose house was broken into by three Emirati and one Omani national in November, 2005. She was stabbed on her chest and back while trying to resist her attackers. Angin, an undocumented OFW, said she sought the help of the Assistant Labor Attache for her repatriation to the Philippines before the incident took place but was allegedly denied help and shelter at the labor office because she lacked money to pay the necessary fees.
"The mindset and thinking of our corps of foreign service must be changed to realize that their existence in countries where they are detailed and stationed is a gift to our citizens, particularly the OFWs. They must show compassion, which OFWs richly deserve," Villar asserted.
With these reports, Villar filed Proposed Resolution No. 248, urging the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations to conduct an inquiry on allegations of bad attitude, negligence and incompetence in handling cases of distressed OFWs by some Philippine embassy and consular personnel stationed in various countries.
He also filed Senate Bill 1879, which seeks to amend Republic Act 8042 or the Migrant Workers and Overseas Filipinos Act of 1995. SB 1879 seeks to impose penalties on Philippine consular officials and other government personnel who fail to act on complaints of, or to give assistance or render service to migrant workers, their families and overseas Filipinos in distress.
"Over a decade after its enactment, RA 8042 has not entirely lived up to its intended purpose," said Villar, noting that Filipinos abroad continue to suffer under abusive employers, inhumane working conditions and various human rights violations.
Under SB 1879, officials and personnel who fail or refuse to render service and/or assistance will be punished with suspension from office of not less than 30 days to dismissal from the service with forfeiture of retirement and other benefits depending on the gravity of the offense, and shall be disqualified from holding any other government office in the future.
Villar has earlier filed Proposed Resolution No. 189 urging the Senate Committee on Labor and Employment and Foreign Relations to conduct an urgent omnibus inquiry on the plight of detained Filipino workers in various countries in order to formulate remedial measure and devise a package of assistance to protect OFWs.
"An assessment of the legal and social remedies being afforded by our embassies and consular offices to our kababayans (countrymen) detained abroad for various offenses is imperative to ascertain sufficiency of assistance for the protection of OFWs," said the Senate President. - Bulatlat