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[OPINION] OFWs and immigrants as milking cows

The way the Philippine government is treating overseas Filipino workers (OFWs), there is little to doubt that they (we) serve as mere milking cows. The old notion that OFWs are modern-day heroes because they salvage the domestic economy is all but erased. Some say, irrationally, that OFWs should just remit their dollars, complain less, expect little embassy help, and shut up. Pay up and be quiet.

But should we just pay up and be quiet? I don’t think so. How insulting.

Just look at how the Philippine Overseas Labor Office (POLO) in Taiwan shamelessly tried to silence and intimidate caregiver Elanel Ordidor for expressing her dismay at the Duterte government’s questionable coronavirus response. They persecuted her and moved for her deportation. It was even Taiwan itself and her employer who insisted it’s her right to exercise free speech. Modern-day hero?

The same ill treatment applies to Filipinos abroad who are already naturalized immigrants. Many hold dual passports and citizenships. Moreover, the large chunk of naturalized immigrants would have first been OFWs themselves. After some years, they navigated the system and applied for legal immigration through work, marriage, or some other allowable arrangements in their host countries. Will naturalized immigrants – after all they’ve been through – simply pay and shut up? No, they won’t.

Based on irrefutable data, OFWs and immigrants relentlessly propped up the country’s ailing economy for decades by contributing billions of dollars. Notably, the bulk comes from North America. According to the Commission of Filipinos Overseas, US-sourced remittances amounted to $32 billion in 2018, which is 10% of the country’s GDP. Of the 12 million Filipinos abroad, 41% are OFWs, 48% are permanent immigrants, while the rest are reportedly (and unfortunately) undocumented aliens. And yes, in light of the pandemic’s stay-at-home orders, OFWs and immigrants were glued to ABS-CBN’s TFC and their YouTube videos. (READ: OFW remittances hit record high of $33.5 billion in 2019)

RA 11223, the Universal Health Care law, states in Section 4(f) that direct contributors include “migrant workers” who are subject to interest on missed contributions (Section 9). The 3% premium rate for 2020 is clearly indicated in Section 10, with minimum income of P10,000 up to P60,000. Section 8.2 of the IRR of RA 11223 specifies OFWs (defined under the Migrant Workers Act and OWWA Act as seafarers and land-based workers) as direct contributors as well as those “Filipinos living abroad” and “Filipinos with dual citizenship.” This was also found on page 1 of PhilHealth Circular 2020-0014, which further added these to the definition of overseas Filipinos: “overseas Filipinos in distress” and “other overseas Filipinos not previously classified elsewhere.” The government really cast a wide net. This is quite an overreach.

If a domestic worker in Hong Kong earns HK$5,000 a month (or roughly P32,626), the 3% premium rate is P978.78 monthly. But this domestic worker most likely remits 50% or more of her salary per month to cover the costs of her children’s education, food, housing needs, and other expenses. That’s already P16,313 at the minimum in monthly remittances, so she is already contributing a lot to the country. She’d be doing this for years, even a decade or more, so is there really a need to punish her further with this 3% premium rate?

If a Filipino nurse in the US earns $6,250 a month (P316,281, gross of course), his/her premium rate is P1,800 due to the P60,000 ceiling. If this nurse sends $1,500 (P75,907) monthly back home for her parents, tuition and school expenses of younger siblings, food, family home bills, and for bank mortgages and other fees for a condo unit (or house and lot) purchased in Metro Manila or Cebu as investment – aren’t those large remittances over and above the 3% monthly contributions for PhilHealth? Aren’t those enough? Those amounts circulate in the domestic market, employ people, and ameliorate the sagging economy.

Yes, they are more than enough. The disabled Philippine economy largely depends upon OFW and immigrant remittances. Essentially, that’s the main fuel that runs the Philippine engine. Thus, there’s no reason to treat these “modern-day heroes” with insensitivity and overtaxation. The milking cow approach should end. (READ: 300,000 sign online petition opposing increase in OFW PhilHealth contributions)

This 3% PhilHealth contribution is not only onerous, but OFWs and immigrants won’t be using the country’s universal health care for the most part as many have health care options overseas. It is nothing more than a new income tax on migrant workers. Assuming the OFW or immigrant later on moves back to the Philippines upon retirement or end of contract, he/she would have contributed so much by then in terms of periodic remittances that should make the person eligible for health care assistance.

The government’s suspension of the premium rate, no doubt because of strong overseas Filipino opposition, is not what OFWs and immigrants want. It’s mere subterfuge, a simple delay, because it is not scrapping it, which is what Migrante International and Gabriela-UAE are calling for. Who knows when this rate will surreptitiously be slipped in when the attention is on something else? – Rappler.com

Carlo Osi is a Professor of Law at the Georgetown University Law Center (adj.) in Washington DC, and is an East Coast-based lawyer, writer and tax practitioner. He was educated by Georgetown Law, University of Pennsylvania Law School, Wharton School of Business, Kyushu University Law, and UP Law.