Hans Cacdac

From OFW’s son to DMW chief, Hans Cacdac’s sleeves are already rolled up

Michelle Abad

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From OFW’s son to DMW chief, Hans Cacdac’s sleeves are already rolled up

SECRETARY. Newly appointed Department of Migrant Workers (DMW) Secretary Hans Leo Cacdac, leads the flag ceremony at the DMW headquarters, on April 29, 2024.

Angie de Silva/Rappler

The new Department of Migrant Workers secretary has decades of labor and migration policy work in his arsenal to tirelessly take on the job of serving OFWs, inspired no less by the memory of his father

Some time around the early 1980s, the son of an overseas Filipino worker (OFW) wept on an airplane en route to visit his father, wondering why he had to travel such long distances just to see him.

The boy’s father was his “buddy,” and it meant the world to spend time with him. As the boy grew up, he dreamt of becoming a lawyer. 

He became just that, and then pursued a career in government.

The young man spent decades in government offices catering to workers, and later OFWs just like his dad. At 56, he was named the second secretary of the fully formed Department of Migrant Workers (DMW).

On April 25, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. appointed Hans Leo Cacdac to lead the DMW, the Philippine government’s newest department. After eight months as officer-in-charge, he succeeded OFW champion Susan “Toots” Ople, who passed away in August 2023.

Unlike many presidential appointees, Cacdac does not have a political background. He was a child in an OFW family who found a knack helping workers, and earned his way up to the very position where he could make the biggest difference in policymaking for families like his own.

The work is demanding and sometimes controversial, given the social costs of labor export. But with decades of technical work in his arsenal, Cacdac takes on the challenge.

Growing up in an OFW family

Cacdac was born in Manila to Ilocano and Negrense parents. His father Napoleon Cacdac, a World War II veteran, began his OFW journey with the US state-run news network Voice of America (VOA).

As a child, among Cacdac’s fondest memories was when his father would take him around the city when he was not abroad. His love for film stemmed from the time he and his father watched movies on Aurora Boulevard.

As a radio engineer for VOA, Napoleon sometimes bought electronic materials in Quiapo, where young Hans tagged along.

Napoleon told him stories about the war. He told him about the time when American officers asked him to locate the bombs that did not detonate along the Cagayan River.

“Some people have heroes in monuments and elsewhere, but my eye always looked up to my dad as a hero,” Cacdac told Rappler in a recent interview.

When Napoleon was assigned in Liberia, his job granted him the privilege of bringing his family along. And so Hans, his mother, and younger sister came along. Though he had completed high school in Lourdes School of Mandaluyong, Hans studied for two extra years in a high school in Liberia.

Hans returned to the Philippines with his mother Edna in 1985 to begin pursuing philosophy, his pre-law, in Ateneo de Manila University. But he still went back and forth to Liberia, and back and forth to the US when his parents decided to move there after. At this point, he was going through college and law school.

When Napoleon lost his job in an electronics firm in Texas, Edna took up an opportunity to work as a caregiver and day care worker, becoming an OFW herself. With the two kids still in school, Napoleon worked in fast food joints to earn some extra money for them.

“I saw the sacrifice. I saw, in a sense, the burden that had been placed on my mom and dad’s shoulders… But I look back at those days with a sense of pride,” said Cacdac in a Rappler Talk episode on Tuesday, May 14.

Law and governance

In Ateneo Law School, Cacdac found himself particularly doing well in his labor law classes. He recalled the time he spent evenings reading his thick labor law books leisurely, as if they were comic books, and put them down as his pillows when he slept. It was then when he began to discover a passion for workers’ rights.

After passing the Bar in 1994, Cacdac spent around six years working as an alternative lawyer for the Sentro ng Alternatibong Lingap Panligal (Saligan). In 1996, he pursued a master’s degree in comparative law in Samford University in Alabama, but still spent some months off to continue working in Saligan.

In 2001, Cacdac began what would become a decades-long career in government, and never looked back. 

He led key offices in the Department of Labor and Employment and gathered technical expertise in bilateral labor negotiations with various countries. 

He went on to become adminstrator of the two main agencies in charge of OFW matters before the DMW was created – the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) in 2012, and the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) in 2016.

The DMW was created through a law signed by then-president Rodrigo Duterte in December 2021. In 2022, already under Marcos’ term, Cacdac became one of the DMW’s inaugural officers as undersecretary for foreign employment and welfare services under Ople’s leadership.

Cacdac grew a friendship with Ople from the time that she was an OFW rights advocate in the Blas F. Ople Policy Center, while he served in government. At Cacdac’s side at the undersecretary level was his “Usec Bro” Bernard Olalia, who also once led the POEA.

The new secretary grieved when his predecessor, his “dear friend,” passed in August. When the Rappler team visited the DMW for his Rappler Talk interview, Cacdac’s office was in a liminal state.

Ople’s portrait was still up on the wall behind his desk next to the President’s, and her name plates remained outside the office and tucked next to photos of Cacdac’s wife and daughter. 

SECRETARY’S OFFICE. DMW Secretary Hans Cacdac’s office pictured on May 14, 2024, with late former secretary Susan ‘Toots’ Ople’s portrait and nameplate still on display. Framed photos of Cacdac’s wife and daughter are seen on top of cabinets in the background. Photo by Michelle Abad/Rappler

As he occupies the office, Ople’s portrait will be there to stay, Cacdac said. There is a plan to create a corner in the office to honor her memory. But the work continues.

Enabling OFWs to dream

In his first order of business as OIC in September, Cacdac led the closure of a consulting agency accused of illegally recruiting Filipino workers.

CLOSED. Cacdac leads the DMW’s shutdown operation of 11 Seas Immigrations Services in Pasay City on November 25, 2023, two months into his OIC stint. Photo by Michelle Abad/Rappler

“We were off and running on Day 1. And we have never looked back since in terms of continuing and furthering and strengthening the programs,” said Cacdac, who has presented himself as a continuity appointee of Ople’s leadership. (READ: DMW chief Cacdac’s priorities: Rights-centered recruitment, reintegration)

The creation of the DMW was not without criticism. When it was still being debated in Congress, rights groups warned that the creation of a department for OFWs would institutionalize labor export, and render the Philippine government disincentivized to create quality jobs at home.

It remains a reality that many Filipinos seek work abroad because of low wages and the lack of security of tenure, among many other issues that plague the labor sector. Analysts have pointed to a “brain drain,” where skilled workers like those in healthcare and education migrate in search of more competitive offers.

Expert Speaks

[DASH of SAS] The Philippine labor export policy needs an overhaul – stat

[DASH of SAS] The Philippine labor export policy needs an overhaul – stat

To this, Cacdac said the DMW was there to simply guide and protect them as they saw migration as the way to provide for their families.

“OFWs…[are] very practical. They could not have gone abroad, tested the overseas market, if they weren’t so simple and practical enough to know that they need to build a better future for their families, their communities, and eventually the nation,” Cacdac said.

In the DMW, which department leaders have called the “Tahanan ng OFW (Home of OFWs),” OFWs can find solace, raise their issues and concerns, and simply be there for them, whether or not they are in distress.

“We are here so that OFWs will know where to go and which agency of government will best suit their needs, their wants, their dreams,” he said.

But in serving OFWs’ immediate needs, does this address the long-time effect advocates warn against – that the Philippines may become too dependent on OFW remittances? After all, OFW personal remittances hit an all-time high in 2023, amounting to $37.2 billion (P2.1 trillion) and accounting for 8.5% of the country’s gross domestic product, according to the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas.

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ENGAGING. Cacdac speaks to protesting OFWs and their families commemorating the 29th death anniversary of Flor Contemplacion and demanding justice for Mary Jane Veloso and all women migrant workers who are victims of human trafficking and illegal recruitment, at the DMW headquarters in Mandaluyong City on March 18, 2024. Jire Carreon/Rappler

Cacdac points to the “improving economy” as the lead-up to what would make labor migration more of an option than a necessity. He noted the unemployment rate reaching below 4% after two decades, and lower underemployment levels.

The DMW under Marcos, he said, strove to implement “full-cycle reintegration” in going about its migration governance. This means not simply sending out as many migrants as we can, but making sure they have an exit plan, too – empowering them with the capacity to eventually settle in the Philippines.

In full-cycle reintegration, protection is provided for OFWs, their families, and the skills and income they earn from start to finish. Cacdac gave examples, illustrating how this happens at the start through protection against illegal recruiters, and towards the end, through partnering with financial institutions to increase financial literacy, “in the name of making sure that their income is well protected.”

“There’s a bigger picture that we’re thinking of. We start with individual dreams, but the goal really is for everybody to partake of a system where they could go back, could enhance their skills, return, get re-employed, and reintegrated back to society,” he said.

From OFW’s son to DMW chief, Hans Cacdac’s sleeves are already rolled up
Trying not to miss the bus

Cases of abuse and risks abroad among OFWs do not seem to run out, and Cacdac said that he felt that there was always something he needed to do.

In the Rappler Talk interview, Cacdac let his inner child speak. Asked how he kept up with the tireless profession of OFW service, he said that he found his father in the sector. Napoleon died in 2008, but his son said that he still longs for him every day.

As he led Philippine migration governance in several capacities, his mother had also told him to “never leave OFWs alone, especially in their hour of need.”

“If I serve OFWs and I’m amongst OFWs, I feel like I’m with my dad. And that carries me through,” he said.

On Cacdac’s office table, a photo of his parents is displayed on an easel facing him. “They’re a work of art for me,” he said.

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PARENTS. A photo of Napoleon and Edna Cacdac, DMW Secretary Hans Cacdac’s parents, on display on his office table. Franz Lopez/Rappler

While burnout is not a usual experience for Cacdac, he still succumbs to the physical exhaustion, and makes time to rest and watch the occasional Celtics game. But more importantly, as his 12-year-old gets older, there are constant reminders that he must make time for the two he calls “my girls” – his wife Ruby and daughter Lourdes Severine.

“OFWs walk up to me and say, ‘Thank you for the service of the OWWA during the pandemic,’ helping over around 1.5 million OFWs who were quarantined and transported back home. But at the same time, at the back of my mind, I’m thinking, yeah, that was good. We worked for 1.5 million OFWs. But I’m also thinking of my girls left behind,” he said.

Ruby had recently shown him an old video of their daughter when she was six. It was the first time he’d seen it. Tracing the timeline, Cacdac remembered that he was in Saudi Arabia at the time, negotiating a bilateral labor agreement for domestic workers.

“My wife asked, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ And my daughter says, ‘I want to be a flight attendant because I want to be with Daddy,’” he said.

“I also missed the bus, missed the boat with my girls while I’m out there working…. So that’s the one thing that keeps me [mindful], not burnout, but longing to do something else aside from work.” – Rappler.com

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Michelle Abad

Michelle Abad is a multimedia reporter at Rappler. She covers the rights of women and children, migrant Filipinos, and labor.