Hans Cacdac

Lawmaker, advocates raise existing OFW distress issues at Cacdac CA hearing

Michelle Abad

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Lawmaker, advocates raise existing OFW distress issues at Cacdac CA hearing

FIRST HEARING. Migrant Workers Secretary Hans Cacdac answers questions during his first hearing with the Commission on Appointments on May 21, 2024.

Commission on Appointments

While not yet confirmed, Cacdac also receives a nod of approval from other lawmakers citing his decades-long government service helping overseas Filipino workers

MANILA, Philippines – Migrant Workers Secretary Hans Cacdac has yet to secure approval from the Commission on Appointments (CA), as during the first hearing on Tuesday, May 21, two oppositors and a lawmaker raised existing issues that have kept many overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) distressed even as Cacdac held previous government posts.

In his opening statement, Cacdac put first and foremost the Department of Migrant Workers’ (DMW) “rights-based” approach in assisting OFWs.

Ipinagtitibay po namin sa DMW ang aming determinasyon na lalo pang galangin at isulong ang mga karapatang pantao at paggawa ng mga OFWs. Pinalalakas po natin ang mga programa kontra illegal recruitment at human trafficking, ” he said, highlighting his 23 years of government service. (READ: Who is Hans Cacdac, the new migrant workers secretary?)

(We at the DMW are strengthening our determination to respect and uphold the human and labor rights of our OFWs. We are strengthening our programs against illegal recruitment ang human trafficking.)

But during the deliberations on Cacdac’s appointment, Ferdinand delos Reyes of the Overseas Filipino Workers Veterans Association questioned how the secretary improved the lives of OFWs in the Middle East, where his group is based.

Ginoong Secretary Cacdac, ano po ang naging participation ‘nyo sa lumalalang problema sa Kuwait, at sa Oman, at sa Saudi Arabia, na napakarami na pong mga distressed OFW na ayon po sa inyo kanina ay natutugunan naman po, pero bakit po kaming mga OFW advocates ay patuloy pa rin pong nakakatanggap ng mga reklamo at ng mga umiiyak na pamilya?” said Delos Reyes.

(Mr. Secretary Cacdac, what has been your participation in addressing the worsening problem in Kuwait, Oman, and Saudi Arabia, where there are so many distressed OFWs that you said have been helped – but how come we OFW advocates continue to receive complaints from them and their crying families?)

Delos Reyes, a former OFW, pointed to alleged neglect, abuse, anomalies, and corruption in the DMW’s Migrant Workers Offices (MWOs) and how recruitment agencies “pressure” OFWs who file cases against their employers. He also brought up the slow payouts to claimants in Saudi Arabia who were laid off from their construction firms around a decade ago, although the payouts already began in February.

The advocate also said that when OFWs lined up for social aid during the COVID-19 pandemic, some were told that they were denied assistance upon disclosing that they were OFWs because they were “rich.”

“When I was an active OFW, the OWWA (Overseas Workers Welfare Administration) gave us aid. But now that I am inactive, we don’t get anything anymore…. What does that mean? It means that when we are called heroes, we should even be thankful that we are alive heroes, not dead. We need to feel [the care] while we are still alive,” he said in a mix of Filipino and English.

Another oppositor, Roberto Tan, who described himself as an “ordinary Filipino” who was once a student in the Soviet Union, reported that some members of the OFW community in Russia had problems with their immigration status.

Ang karamihan sa kanila ay expired ang visa at walang kaukulang dokumento na dapat ito ay natututukan at sila ay dapat naaasikaso sa mabilis na panahon, ngunit sila ay napapabayaan,” said Tan. As of 2022, Philippine government numbers said some 10,000 OFWs were in Russia.

(Many of them have expired visas and no proper documentation, and this should be urgently addressed, but they have been neglected.)

Delos Reyes also accused the DMW of having “dummy recruitment agencies,” which Cacdac denied.

“[But] I am always accountable to the people, if there will be any specific charge presented, I am willing to face any specific charge. But sir, I vehemently deny the charge,” Cacdac said to Delos Reyes.

Cacdac also mentioned ways the DMW was preventing and assisting in cases of distressed OFWs. In regards to prevention, he said that the department had designed various information campaigns like the orientation seminars prior to departure. He also reported that the DMW’s One Repatriation Command Center (ORCC) has repatriated, on average, 880 distressed OFWs a month, rendering a total of more than 19,000 OFWs repatriated since it was created in July 2022 under his predecessor, the late former DMW secretary Susan “Toots” Ople.

SAGIP Representative Rodante Marcoleta also raised the issue of his perceived lack of legal assistance personnel in Saudi Arabia, the top destination country for OFWs and where many abuse cases have been reported.

The DMW said there were two law firms in Saudi Arabia that represented Filipino workers who needed legal assistance. There are over 450,000 OFWs there as of 2022, according to the Philippine Statistics Authority.

“Can you imagine? These are vulnerable citizens of our country. They are on their own. And they are expecting adequate and effective protection once they are there…. So, let us provide them with adequate, effective protection, legally speaking,” said Marcoleta.

Marcoleta stressed that the DMW should be hiring in-house lawyers instead of legal retainers so that they can be considered Philippine government-employed and work the same hours as other MWO personnel. Cacdac responded that the legal retainers are on call 24/7.

“I have heard the emotional opposition of these two guys here. Mayroong laman po ‘yun eh (These hold water),” he said.

Marcoleta added that the DMW’s “default” has been to repatriate workers since it put up the ORCC, which may be problematic.

“When there are people abused, we always think to repatriate or sometimes even resort to deportation because it’s the fastest, because you set up a One Repatriation Command Center…. Mr. Secretary, we have to defend the rights, you have to vindicate the rights of OFWs, not always just bring them home,” he said, adding that some employers may not be prosecuted because “all we do is repatriate.”

Cacdac noted Marcoleta’s suggestion to hire more legal personnel for OFWs, particularly in Saudi Arabia.

Praise and endorsements

A number of lawmakers were still eager to express their support for Cacdac’s confirmation. The first to do so was Senate Minority Deputy Leader Risa Hontiveros, who said she experienced working with him during his time as an alternative lawyer helping empower labor unions.

“I have faith in his credibility, ability, and competence in leading his department to fully and effectively serve our kababayans who risk their lives and their futures abroad. May malalim na siyang karanasan sa pagtugon sa mga problema at pagsubok na kinakaharap ng ating mga kababayang OFW,” Hontiveros said. (He has deep-rooted experience in responding to the problems and challenges that our OFWs face.)

“With Secretary Cacdac’s deep sense of compassion, combined with his skills and experience, I believe that he will prove to be an effective leader of the department and a great advocate for our OFWs,” she added.

Senator Ronald dela Rosa, meanwhile, described Cacdac as a diligent government official, even quipping at the “eyebags” on his face probably caused by sleepless nights spent working.

“In my experience, almost five years of being a senator of this republic, wala pa akong na-experience na isang kaso, isang problema ng OFW na dumulog sa aking opisina, na in-endorse ko kay Secretary Cacdac na hindi niya inaksyunan. One hundred percent po inaksyunan niya lahat ng mga dumulog sa akin, lalong-lalo na ‘yung mga namatay sa abroad, na walang pamasahe, ‘yung bangkay, iuuwi dito sa Pilipinas, ‘matic, nire-refer ko sa office ni Secretary Cacdac at ito po lahat ay satisfactorily responded by his office,” said Dela Rosa.

(In my experience, almost five years of being a senator of this republic, I have not experienced a case, a problem of an OFW that was brought to our office that I endorsed to Secretary Cacdac that he did not take action on. He 100% took action for all of the cases that were brought to me, especially those who died abroad, who did not have money to go home, who had remains that needed to be brought home – I automatically referred them to Secretary Cacdac’s office, and all of these have been satisfactorily responded to.)

President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. appointed Cacdac as his new migrant workers secretary on April 25. The CA has to approve the appointment for Cacdac to rid his ad interim status. – 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.