MANILA, Philippines – Towards the tail end of his administration, President Rodrigo Duterte finally signed into law a bill creating a department for the welfare of overseas Filipino workers, to be formally called Department of Migrant Workers.
Duterte affixed his signature to the law on Thursday, December 30, during a ceremony in Malacañang attended by lawmakers.
In his speech, related the establishment of the new department to Rizal Day, which Filipinos commemorated on Thursday.
“The establishment of the Department of Migrant Workers happens on the celebration of Rizal Day, when we honor not only the exceptional love of country of Dr. Jose Rizal, but also the patriotism, excellence, courage, of our modern-day heroes, including our overseas Filipinos,” he said.
The law’s enactment is a fulfillment of Duterte’s 2016 presidential campaign promise to create an OFW department that would consolidate all relevant agencies under one to make it easier for migrant workers to get their documents and seek help from the government. His strong remarks about OFW welfare as a presidential candidate helped deliver him a landslide win among overseas Filipinos in the 2016 elections.
The President had asked Congress for this department in four State of the Nation Addresses.
Duterte had certified as urgent the Senate bills for creating the OFW department last May, after the House of Representatives had passed its version. The Senate eventually passed their version of the proposed legislation last December 14. Their version was then adopted by the House.
How will the new department change things?
The new law turns the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration into the Department of Migrant Workers, which would be mandated to oversee all policies protecting the welfare of OFWs.
The functions of other agencies currently under several government departments and handling different OFW concerns would be merged and transferred under the new agency. These offices include:
- National Reintegration Center under the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA)
- All Philippine overseas labor offices under the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE)
- International Labor Affairs Bureau under DOLE
- National Maritime Polytechnic under DOLE
- Office of the Undersecretary for Migrant Workers’ Affairs under the Department of Foreign Affairs
- International Social Services Office under the Department of Social Welfare and Development
- Commission on Filipino Overseas under the Office of the President
OWWA, meanwhile, would become an attached agency of the Department of Migrant Workers.
The new department would be tasked to regulate the recruitment, employment, and deployment of OFWs and spearhead investigations and file cases concerning illegal recruitment and human trafficking cases involving OFWs.
Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles has described the new department as envisioned to provide a more “efficient” way of handling the “multidimensional concerns” of OFWs.
Senator Joel Villanueva, chairperson of the Senate labor committee, has said the new department could help OFWs navigate all the challenges of living abroad in a post-pandemic world.
But the Department of Migrant Workers was not without its critics.
Labor rights group Sentro ng mga Nagkakaisa at Progresibong Manggagawa (Sentro) rejected the proposed department, saying it would “institutionalize” the country’s reliance on labor exportation for economic development. Villanueva, after the Senate passed their bill, disagreed with this interpretation of the policy.
“We are in unison that it is not the policy of the state to promote overseas employment and it is our common aspiration that Filipinos will migrate or work abroad only out of choice and not out of necessity,” he had said last December 14.
Other groups like Center for Migrant Advocacy and Migrante, meanwhile, questioned the added value of a new department when there are ways to improve the old system, such as the establishment of one-stop service centers for OFWs in different parts of the country and the joint manual for overseas operations that harmonizes the efforts of the foreign affairs, labor, and social welfare departments when handling specific cases of OFWs in distress. – With a report from Michelle Abad/Rappler.com