ANGELES CITY, Philippines – One of President Rodrigo Duterte's most trusted men has proposed a permanent solution to the salary woes of immigration workers after the justice and budget departments reached an impasse on the issue.
Secretary to the Cabinet Leoncio Evasco Jr has proposed to fast-track the proposed amendments to the Philippine Immigration Act of 1940 which would augment the salaries of Bureau of Immigration (BI) personnel, Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II said in a media interview on Wednesday, April 5.
Aguirre was asked about the problem, which has caused long queues at Manila's international airport, in an interview with reporters at the 29th annual national convention of the Prosecutors' League of the Philippines at Clark Freeport.
“Ang pinakalatest na may proposal is si CabSec Jun Evasco, na in the meantime, ifa-fasttrack natin ang enactment ng Immigration Law. Siyempre ise-certify ng Pangulo ‘yan para bumilis but siyempre it has to start with the House of Representatives," Aguirre said.
(The latest proposal is from CabSec Jun Evasco, that in the meantime, let's fasttrack the enactment of the [new]immigration law. Of course it has to be certified by the President to speed it up it but it has to start with the House of Representatives.)
There are several pending bills at the House and the Senate seeking to amend the Philippine Immigration Act of 1940 to allow the BI to "retain and use 50% of its income derived from collection of immigration fees, fines, penalties and charges to pay hazard pay, subsistence allowance and other monetary benefits" for workers.
All these proposed measures are still at the committee level.
The Express Lane Fund (ELF) is currently the subject of much controversy after Duterte vetoed the provision in the 2017 national budget allowing it to be used for overtime pay of BI workers. Because of the slashed income, immigration officers have gone on mass leave, resulting in long lines at the airport. (READ: Duterte's veto leaves thousands of BI workers scrambling for money)
Instead of going to the airport at least two hours before a flight, carriers like Philippine Airlines have advised their passengers to be at the airport at least 4 hours before boarding time because of the long queues at the undermanned immigration counters.
Aguirre, whose office oversees the BI, is hoping that Evasco's intervention would help break the impasse on the issue.
“Hopefully [it would break the impasse]. It was already there during our Cabinet meeting, but it did not budge Secretary Diokno," Aguirre said. (READ: More immigration workers to resign if salary woes not solved – union)
Aguirre said he was not able to take up the proposal with Duterte at the Cabinet meeting on Monday, April 3, because there was no opportunity to do so. That meeting was when Duterte fired Interior Secretary Ismael Sueno.
The Department of Justice (DOJ), BI, and Department of Budget and Management (DBM) have been in talks with the Office of the President (OP) about the issue for months but they have not yet come up with a solution.
The DBM has insisted that it is illegal to source workers' overtime pay from the ELF and instead approved 936 new positions to the BI which will result in an additional P381.2 million budget for personnel cost. The DBM said the workers may get as much as P9,000 in overtime pay through this.
Aguirre said on Monday that this would not be enough, noting that the pay obtained by BI personnel from the ELF reaches "P2 billion to P3 billion." The DOJ chief is instead proposing a status quo to let the BI revert to the old system until the law is amended.
On Wednesday, Aguirre bared that he has proposed a new formula, but declined to give details, saying it was premature.
Data from the BI's personnel division show a bulk of their regular employees, including immigration officers stationed at the airport, belong to salary grades 1-11. A salary grade 11 worker gets as much as P16,000 monthly net pay.
When they were still able to source over time pay from the ELF, they could take home as much as P50,000. (READ: FACT CHECK: Immigration officers not 'contractuals,' contrary to Diokno's claim)
Budget Secretary Benjamin Diokno said the use of the ELF to fund overtime pay is illegal because existing laws provide that a government employee may not get overtime pay that exceeds 50% of one's basic pay.
Aguirre said the DOJ had submitted its legal opinion that the use of ELF is legal under Section 7-A of the Immigration Law of 1940, which says overtime can be paid by “shipping companies and airlines and other persons served.”
"Unfortunately, ayaw ng DBM, meron silang legal reservation na 'di raw puwede 'yun. Magkakaroon ng impasse, so sa ngayon walang pagkukunan ng overtime kaya ngayon delikado tayo dito sapagkat kapag walang mag-man sa ating ports, exit and entry ay delikado 'yun sa national security," Aguirre said.
(Unfortunately, the DBM is opposed to it, they have a legal reservation. There would be an impasse, so at the moment, there is no source for overtime pay. We're at risk here because no one would man our ports, exits and entries, and our national security is at risk too.)
BI Commissioner Jaime Morente on Tuesday, April 4, called on the DBM to revisit the historical precedents of the practice and reconsider their stance.
The use of ELF to augment salaries of workers was instituted by former immigration commissioner Miriam Defensor-Santiago, and continued until last year.
Diokno said Santiago's scheme then was "transparent" while the scheme now is "opaque."
In a text message to Rappler on Wednesday, Diokno said: "Under the (Miriam Defensor Santiago) system there is a difference between fast lane services and regular services; only those who are engaged in fast lane services get to be paid overtime services; now the regular services have been discontinued."
Diokno added that the ELF should be subjected to a special audit by the Commission on Audit (COA) to "determine the exact amount collected over a period of time, say over 5 years, and how the collected fees were applied."
Aguirre earlier said Evasco supports his proposal to revert to the old system until Congress approves the new immigration law.
"Nakiki-isa sa amin si Sec Evasco (sa) nilalakad namin na palliative measure lang ito na until the new immigration law is approved, kung puwede ibalik muna 'yung dating pamamalakad sa express lane fund. So siguro ang ating Pangulo na ang aakto dito considering na hindi namin maconvince ang DBM tungkol dito sa temporary arrangement na ito," Aguirre said on Monday.
(Sec Evasco is one with us in our proposal that as a palliative measure until the new immigration law is approved, let's return the system of the express lane fund. Maybe the President will act on it himself since we cannot convince the DBM in this proposed temporary arrangement.)
Evasco, former priest, rebel and mayor of a Bohol town is one of Duterte's most trusted advisers. He helped craft the campaign of Duterte in 2016.
Evasco has not responded to Rappler's requests for comment as of posting time. – Rappler.com