Aquino and the continuing plight of OFWs

Mara Cepeda
Aquino and the continuing plight of OFWs
President Benigno Aquino III promised OFWs that at the end of his administration, working abroad will be a 'choice rather than a necessity.' Did he deliver?

MANILA, Philippines – The country’s bagong bayani (modern-day heroes) had reason to hope when President Benigno Aquino III was elected in 2010.

He promised about 9 million overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) that his administration will create jobs at home “so that working abroad will be a choice rather than a necessity.”

Aquino also vowed that the welfare and protection of citizens who would choose to become OFWs “will still be the government’s priority.” 

The work was cut out for him. 

Issues like the “tanim bala (bullet planting)” controversy and the Bureau of Customs’ (BOC) inspection of balikbayan boxes drew  the ire of OFWs and their families. Critics accused the President of lack of empathy for the plight of migrant workers.

While Mary Jane Veloso was granted an 11th hour reprieve, a total of 8 OFWs were executed during Aquino’s term despite last-minute appeals for clemency by the Philippine government. The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) said 92 OFWs remain on death row, with another 3,800 jailed across the globe. 

In 2013, one of the biggest scandals involving OFWs also rocked the Philippines. Then-Akbayan Representative Walden Bello, along with victims from Syria, Kuwait, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, accused Philippine embassy and labor officials of sexually abusing and prostituting distressed OFWs.  

SEX ABUSE. Grace Victoria Sales (first from right) accuses a labor official's driver of making sexual advances on her on August 8, 2013. Photo by Arcel Cometa

Aquino received criticism from the OFW community when he glossed over these issues in his last State of the Nation Address. (READ: OFWs on Aquino SONA: ‘What about us?’

He did say, however, that the number of OFWs was reduced from 9.51 million in 2011 to 9.07 million in 2014. According to Aquino, this means that 440,000 Filipinos have returned to the country and had been absorbed by the local job market. 

“They have come back and we have that lowest unemployment rate so I assume they found meaningful employment here,” Aquino said in is exit interview with Rappler on June 7.

Before stepping down, Aquino also signed Republic Act No 10863 or the Customs Modernization and Tariff Act, which increases the tax-exempt value of items sent via balikbayan boxes by OFWs to their families back home.

What were the Aquino government’s major efforts to help OFWs in the past 6 years? Were these enough payback for the sacrifices of OFWs, whose remittances amounted to $2.7 billion (P124.916 billion) in December 2015?

Streamlined services, repatriation efforts 

Throughout Aquino’s term, several government agencies strived to improve and modernize their support systems for OFWs, including the DFA, the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE), the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA), and the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA). 

OFWs – as long as they are documented and are duly registered at the agencies concerned – are able to avail of loans, training seminars, scholarships for their children, and livelihood programs. 

As of July 2015, 708,598 OFWs secured their overseas employment certificate through the Balik Manggagawa Online Processing System of the POEA.

TICKET TO WORK. Overseas Filipino workers applying for their overseas employment certificates through the POEA's Balik Manggagawa Online Processing System. Photo by Mara Cepeda/Rappler

The DFA also managed to repatriate thousands of OFWs from war-stricken countries Libya, Syria, and Iraq, as well as Gaza. The same goes for 7,000 OFWs in Saudi Arabia as the country started a crackdown on illegal foreign workers. 

Former Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario played a pivotal role in the repatriation of around 24,000 OFWs in the past 6 years. Just 36 hours after he took his oath in February 2011, the 71-year-old Del Rosario flew to Tripoli, Libya, to help bring 400 Filipinos out of the danger zone. 

After that, he hopped to countries like Syria, Egypt, Iraq, Tunisia, and Yemen to help repatriate Filipino migrant workers and to check on their conditions. Elmer Cato, charge d’affaires of the Philippine embassy in Iraq, called del Rosario the Filipino “Moses.”

He is recently remembered for helping delay the execution of Veloso, a drug trafficking convict who was set to be killed via firing squad in Indonesia in April 2015. Del Rosario resigned in February 2016 due to health reasons.

Meanwhile, government agencies on OFW concerns have partnered with the Department of Justice, the Bureau of Immigration, and law enforcement agencies in the fight against illegal recruitment, too. 

According to POEA Administrator Hans Leo Cacdac, his agency has reported 893 illegal recruitment cases to prosecution offices concerned. They have also cancelled the licenses of 213 registered land-based and sea-based recruitment agencies who violated the law. 

“[We cancelled their licenses] for various reasons – overcharging of placement fees, misrepresentation, failure to deploy, contract substitution. But the number one kasalanan (violation) is overcharging of placement fees,” said Cacdac.

OWWA also offers a Reintegration Program, which prepares OFWs who are returning to Philippine society. Former OFWs can tap into the P2-billion grant facility for enterprise development and can also avail of OWWA and DOLE’s “Balik-Pinas, Balik Hanapbuhay” livelihood assistance program. 

Setbacks for undocumented OFWs

The problem, however, is that these services are hard to reach for many undocumented OFWs. (READ: Fallen ‘heroes’: OFWs turned hungry and homeless)

“Yes. In terms of benefits, you have to please remember that OWWA is membership-based. Kasi dalawa ‘yan – benepisyo at serbisyo (There are two – benefits and services). Benefits you really have to be a member. Pero pagdating sa (But when it comes to) welfare services, we do not anymore differentiate,” said OWWA administrator Rebecca Calzado.  

Several OFWs are often forced to work abroad without the necessary permits because of red tape as well. Cacdac previously acknowledged this with Rappler, saying “slow” government processes make OFWs vulnerable to illegal recruiters. 

When the primary agencies failed to help them, some OFWs ran to other bodies to encourage the government to fast-track their requests, like the Blas F Ople Policy Center and Training Institute as well as the Office of Vice President Jejomar Binay, former presidential adviser on OFW affairs.  

Their efforts led to the repatriation of undocumented OFW Mario Jucutan and Jonard Langamin, who escaped the death penalty in Saudi Arabia, among others. 

Still ‘disappointing’

Despite these achievements, newly-elected ACTS-OFW Party-list Representative John Bertiz said the Aquino administration was still “disappointing” overall.

Siya nga lang ‘yung president na ‘di dumalaw sa mga highly populated countries by OFWs. ‘Di siya tumuntong ng Middle East,” said Bertiz. 

Latest data from the POEA and the Office of the President showed that Aquino did not set foot in 7 of the 10 top destinations of OFWs in 2014, including Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Hong Kong, Qatar, Kuwait, Taiwan, and Bahrain. (READ: What you need to know about overseas Filipino workers

Bertiz also cited the 8 OFWs who were executed during the President’s term: 

  • March 30, 2011: Sally Ordinario-Villanueva, Ramon Credo, and Elizabeth Batain were executed in China through lethal injection for drug smuggling 
  • December 9, 2011: a 35-year-old male OFW was executed in China for drug smuggling
  • July 3, 2013: another 35-year-old female OFW-turned-drug mule was executed in China
  • December 12, 2014: Carlito Lana was beheaded fatally shooting his employer in Saudi Arabia 
  • March 9, 2015: Joven Esteva was executed by the Saudi Arabian government for the murder of his employer
  • December 29, 2015: Joselita Zapanta was beheaded over the murder with robbery of his Sudanese landlord in Saudi Arabia 

In the case of Veloso, Bertiz acknowledged that it was Aquino’s call to Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi that saved her life. But she alleged that the OFW was in death row for 5 years before the Philippine government began exhausting all means possible to stop her execution.  

ALL SMILES. Mary Jane Veloso is all smiles exactly one year since her scheduled execution. Photo by Mawa Kresna

Migrante International chairperson Garry Martinez agreed, pointing out that nothing came into fruition concerning the committee that Aquino created in 2014 to determine a clear policy on blood money for OFWs.

Ninety-two ang nasa death row sa ngayon. I will consider as success story ‘yung isa. Pano ‘yung iba? Kailangan may mag-ingay uli?” Martinez said.

(Ninety-two remain on death row now. I will consider one as a success story. But what about the rest? We need to rally again just to solve their cases?)

He also slammed Aquino because up to this day, no convictions were made concerning the sex-for-flight scandal.  

Yun ‘yung nakakalungkot. Malinaw walang naparusahan dito….’Yung culture ng impunity hanggang sa ibayong dagat ay talagang meron,” said Martinez.

(That’s what’s disheartening. It’s clear no one has been convicted… The culture of impunity exists even across the seas.)

Added burden

NO TO TERMINAL FEES. Long queues at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport remain a problem for OFWs. Photo from Wikipedia

Bertiz was also dissatisfied that OFWs continue to line up at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) just to reimburse their terminal fees. 

OFWs are exempted by law from paying terminal fees or the International Passenger Service Charge (IPSC). But because the new IPSC scheme requires that terminal fees be paid with tickets when they book online and abroad, the exempted OFWs line up at the airport to be reimbursed. 

“The reason why they did that was because of the stupid reason para ma-decongest ang (to decongest the) airport,” said Bertiz.  

The late OFW Family party list representative Roy Señeres had pointed out the findings of a House committee that congestion in NAIA is not at the travel tax and terminal fee counters but at the airline check-in, baggage check, and immigration counters

Looking ahead

CHANGE IS COMING? OFWs across the globe hope the next 6 years under incoming President Rodrigo Duterte would be better for them. Photo by Jedwin Llobrera

Moving forward, Bertiz and Martinez are both hopeful that incoming President Rodrigo Duterte would follow through on his vow to put OFWs’ concerns among his top labor priorities

His initial plans include the following:

  • Creation of an OFW department
  • Review of the OWWA mandate for possible complementation with Migrant Resource Center (MRC) services
  • Promotion on participation of overseas communities with high concentration of migrant workers
  • MRC proposal and budget allocation for the inception of the MRCs
  • Closer collaborative initiatives with identified host countries
  • Every OFW should have an integrated Identification card that is automatically linked to the database and offices of POEA and OWWA to facilitate monitoring and information dissemination

Martinez said he is hoping that Duterte’s hard stance against crime and drugs would also push him to recall “abusive and erring” officials in all Philippine embassies and consulates across the world.  

Ang una kong prayoridad ‘yung ating manggagawa na lalabas. Kung saan-saan, pahirapan, ito ang sabihin ko sa inyo, isang departamento lang at hindi na gagalaw diyan. Ang taong lalabas sa ating bayan magtrabaho, isang building lang sila at hindi na magpamasahe kung saan,” said Duterte during his Labor Day rally.

(My first priority is our workers who go abroad. They have such a hard time going to so many agencies. There should be just one department. Those going abroad to work need only go to one building for permits.)

Seventy-two percent of OFWs who voted in the May polls chose Duterte, whom 16 million voters believe would solve the failures of Aquino’s “Daang Matuwid (Straight Path).” 

Will change come for the millions of OFWs who toil miles away just to provide for their families? Only the next 6 years can tell. –

$1 =  P46.27

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Mara Cepeda

Mara Cepeda specializes in stories about politics and local governance. She covers the Office of the Vice President, the Senate, and the Philippine opposition. She is a 2021 fellow of the Asia Journalism Fellowship and the Reham al-Farra Memorial Journalism Fellowship of the UN. Got tips? Email her at or tweet @maracepeda.