overseas Filipinos

Labor chief Bello admits ‘very few convictions’ of illegal recruiters

Michelle Abad
Labor chief Bello admits ‘very few convictions’ of illegal recruiters

OVERSEAS FILIPINOS. Repatriated overseas Filipino workers queue at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport Terminal 2 in Pasay City on December 14, 2020, for their flights during the holiday season.

Rappler file photo

Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III makes this admission as the Senate studies the proposed Department of Overseas Filipinos

Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III admitted to the Senate on Monday, February 15, that there has been a low rate of convictions for illegal recruiters of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs).

We have to admit that we have very few convictions, your honor,” said Bello in a Senate labor committee hearing on the proposed Department of Overseas Filipinos (DOFIL).

Bello explained that current trends show it is difficult to control illegal recruitment because there are many willing victims. Many of the recruiters are also foreign-based, making it harder to go after them.

The labor secretary said the processes nowadays are also high-tech, as some illegal recruitments involve taking several flights to different places, usually through a transitory country like Malaysia before reaching the final destination.

Bello also said there are actually many arrests, but many of the complainants eventually drop their cases.

The Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) recorded just 25 convictions of illegal recruiters from 2016 to 2020.

In 2019, there were 57 cases endorsed for preliminary investigation, but only two were convicted. In 2020, only 5 were endorsed, with the same conviction rate of two.

Presidential Adviser on OFW Concerns Secretary Abdullah Mamao suggested, to address the issue of dropped cases, the law should provide that illegal recruitment be considered a public crime. This would allow for recruiters to be prosecuted even with uninterested complainants.

‘Malasakit Centers’ to cater to grievances

As the Senate mulled over the creation of the DOFIL in Monday’s hearing, at least two senators touched on whether it would be enough to curb illegal recruitment processes.

Senate labor committee chair Senator Joel Villanueva asked Cabinet members if the proposed department under Senate Bill No. 1949 would make way for more convictions of illegal recruiters.

Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles said the creation of Malasakit Centers as one-stop-shops under the proposed department will be able to ramp up services for aspiring OFWs.

Nograles said some Filipinos are inclined to accept offers from illegal recruiters because the latter claim to be able to fix the paperwork faster.

But if we see that the Malasakit Centers act and respond quickly… and our countrymen see that this is the legal and safer way, then hopefully there will not be a need for them to go through these illegal recruiters,” Nograles said in Filipino.

Senator Sherwin Gatchalian said assistance could only go so far.

Without going after these illegal recruiters, whether domestic or abroad, and coming up with preventive measures from this happening, ‘yung assistance natin at one point mauubos din (our assistance will run out). But we’re not addressing the root cause of the issue, which is the illegal recruiters operating and preying on our OFWs,” said Gatchalian.

Meanwhile, the DOLE and the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) both expressed support for the creation of a DOFIL.

Bello said one thing that the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) does at present to address the issue is to cancel the licenses of known illegal recruiters. But even after this, they would continue to operate illegally.

At kapag nasa abroad sila, wala tayong magagawa, your honors, cancel-in mo franchise nila, it does not really affect their businesses. Kaya talagang mahirap habulin mga ‘yan,” said Bello.

(If they are abroad, there is nothing we can do. Even if we cancel their franchises, it does not really affect their businesses. That’s why it’s so hard to go after them.)

The proposed department, which would primarily cater to the welfare of OFWs, would work alongside the POEA and the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration as attached agencies.

Proponents say a single department and a Cabinet secretary focusing solely on OFWs’ concerns would be beneficial, as the DOLE and DFA have a broad range of responsibilities.

There are an estimated 10.2 million overseas Filipinos as of 2019, according to the Commission on Filipinos Overseas.

Some provisions may spell ‘false hope’

DFA Assistant Secretary Enrico Fos said under the proposed bill, members of the DOFIL would be designated as attachés to foreign countries. But Mamao said that this could cause confusion on authority and lack of recognition for new deployments, since there are existing consuls and representatives.

The DFA needs to be clear about the responsibilities of these attachés under DOFIL in order for the foreign officers to “respect them,” Mamao said.

Senator Nancy Binay also noted that since sending attachés would still be subject to the approval of the host country, the overseas Filipinos could be given “false hope” that more officials would cater to their concerns upon the creation of the department.

Majority leader Senator Juan Miguel Zubiri also brought up the “false hope” concept – that if the mandate of the DOFIL stays unclear with regard to its delineation with the DOLE and DFA as the implementers, it would come out as an ineffective agency.

“We have to make sure we’re not providing false hopes with them, and there is a clear-cut structure in place on how their grievances can be heard and solved…. Ang ayaw ko mangyari, ay mayroon tayong isang departamento na wala namang nagagawa – bumabalik sila sa DOLE, sa ambassadors para sa kanilang mga pangangailangan,” said Zubiri.

(I don’t want for us to have a department that does not do anything – the workers would go back to DOLE and their ambassadors for their needs.)

In earlier hearings, Senate President Vicente Sotto III and other senators expressed apprehensions about “creating new bureaucracies” that tend to bloat and slow down the government’s work.

Instead, Sotto and Drilon were pushing for streamlining or rightsizing the bureaucracy to make it more efficient and less costly.

The House of Representatives passed its version of the bill in March 2020. In December 2020, President Rodrigo Duterte certified the DOFIL bill as urgent. – Rappler.com

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Michelle Abad

Michelle Abad is a researcher-writer with the investigative unit of Rappler. She also covers overseas Filipinos and the rights of women and children.