Senate of the Philippines

Senate passes bill creating new Department of Migrant Workers

Mara Cepeda
Senate passes bill creating new Department of Migrant Workers

OFWS' SAFETY. Due to the continuing threat of COVID-19 and the new Omicron variant, some of the departing overseas Filipino workers wear personal protective equipment at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport on December 8, 2021.

Dennis Abrina/Rappler

Senator Joel Villanueva says creating the OFW department does not mean a shift to embracing labor export as a policy

MANILA, Philippines – The Philippines is one step closer toward having an entirely new government agency dedicated to overseeing the affairs and protecting the rights of millions of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs).

On Tuesday, December 14, a total of 20 senators voted to pass on third and final reading Senate Bill (SB) No. 2234, which proposes the creation of the Department of Migrant Workers. No other senator voted against the measure nor abstained from the vote.

President Rodrigo Duterte has long been asking Congress to pass a bill creating a new OFW department. He certified the bill as urgent in March, allowing senators to give their final approval of the measure just a day after the second reading passage on Monday, December 13. The President certifying a bill as urgent waives the three-day mandatory interval between the second and third reading approval of measures. 

SB 2234 seeks to turn 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 Department of Migrant Workers 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.

SB 2234 initially wanted to name the new agency as the Department of Migrant Workers and Overseas Filipinos, but Senate Minority Leader Frank Drilon pushed for an amendment to strike out “overseas Filipinos” in the title. 

This is to delineate the proposed new agency’s jurisdiction over overseas employment and labor migration from the Department of Foreign Affairs’ (DFA) authority over other migrant Filipinos. 

Drilon also introduced an amendment that would require the President to first issue a written authorization before the Department of Migrant Workers could join international meetings or pursue negotiations on treaties and executive agreements. 

Senate labor committee chair Joel Villanueva said the Department of Migrant Workers would be “laser focused” on the needs of OFWs. He reiterated his earlier statement that the new agency does not necessarily mean the Philippines would already be embracing labor export as a policy.

Naniniwala po tayo na balang-araw – at hindi po tayo mawawalan ng pag-asa – na darating ang panahong hindi na kailangang mag-abroad ng Pilipino at mawalay sa kanyang pamilya para lang mabuhay. (We believe that one day – and we will not lose hope on this – there will come a time that Filipinos won’t need to go abroad and be away from their families just to survive.) 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,” said Villanueva.

Senators had initially questioned the need to consolidate all government offices related to the concerns of OFWs and migrant Filipinos, raising concerns over the administrative and budgetary implications of creating a new agency. 

Labor rights group Sentro ng mga Nagkakaisa at Progresibong Manggagawa had also rejected the proposed OFW department, saying it would “institutionalize” the country’s reliance on labor exportation for economic development.

But senators were later able to find consensus on Duterte’s pet bill, finally sponsoring SB 2234 for plenary debates and approval in May

The House of Representatives already approved its own version of the bill creating the Department of Filipinos Overseas and Foreign Employment in March 2020.

This means both chambers would have to convene a bicameral conference committee to settle conflicting provisions in their respective versions before the OFW department bill could be signed by Duterte. – Rappler.com

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 mara.cepeda@rappler.com or tweet @maracepeda.