Tuesday, 23 May 2000

Mandatory fee triggers protests

Bleeding overseas workers dry
By Gina Mission 


The government stands to collect $200 million this year from the estimated eight million overseas Filipino workers when the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) starts collecting the mandatory $25 "membership contribution" from them on July 1.

__The fee, under OWWA Resolution 99-016, will go to the Overseas Workers Welfare Fund and will entitle each contributor, and his or her family, to one year's coverage of all services and benefits "provided under current and future programs" of the agency.

__But Migrante International, a non-government organization assisting Filipino migrant workers, protests the fee, calling it "clear profiteering" by OWWA. Even without such contribution, it pointed out, overseas Filipino workers, by right, are entitled to services and benefits from the agency.

Financing a 'corrupt lifestyle'

__"Without any let-up, the Estrada government is finding ways and means to further capitalize on our compatriots abroad by ramming down new collection schemes to finance its corrupt lifestyle and proteges," Migrante said in a May 22 statement. 

__The OWWA resolution, entitled "Instituting a Uniform Annual Collection of Membership Contributions to the Overseas Workers Welfare Fund and Providing the Mechanisms Therefor," was signed last December by Labor Department Secretary Bienvenido Laguesma, who serves as OWWA board chair. It was also signed by other officials from OWWA, the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration, the Budget Department, Department of Finance and Department of Foreign Affairs, and four sectoral representatives. 

__The resolution covers "all contract workers in possession of a valid OWWA passbook employed overseas or on vacation leave, whether land- or sea-based, including those processed under the Balik-Manggagawa Assistance Program of POEA and enrollees to the Voluntary Membership Program." 

__It says the welfare fund will be used by OWWA to provide social and welfare services to overseas workers and their families. These services include insurance coverage, legal assistance, family and emergency assistance, pre-departure assistance, repatriation services, accommodation assistance, counseling services, training and skills upgrade assistance, job placement and re-placement services, loans for livelihood projects, cultural services and other related social and welfare services. 

__Why collect the $25 annual fee? "There is a need for OWWA to continuously improve its social and welfare programs for the OFWs' benefit and that of their families, particularly on account of the increasing number of OFWs returning to the country needing re-integration services," the resolution explained.

__But Vince Borneo, information officer of Migrante, said the budget for services to overseas Filpino workers must come from the national budget, "which is significantly shouldered by their dollar remittances." 

Fee 'based on nonsense'

__"Getting compulsory OWWA membership contributions in exchange for all types of services to migrant Filipinos is clear profiteering based on nonsense," he said. "The OWWA and all government agencies with OFW concerns are mandated to give free services and utmost protection to the 'economy's new heroes'. The OWWA resolution should be trashed outright."

__The $25 contribution is unnecessary, he said, because the government already exacts millions of pesos in fees and fines from overseas Filipino workers-in addition to the estimated $12 billion they remit to the national treasury each year.

A recycled scheme? 

__Borneo said the OWWA resolution was essentially a "recycled version" of OWWA Memorandum of Instruction 8 of 1996, which imposed the collection of an OWWA membership fee per work contract.

__He recalled that the scheme was vehemently denounced by overseas Filipinos through "international mass protests," forcing OWWA to "repackage" it into the Voluntary Membership Program (VMP), which was carried out starting 1997. Both schemes required the payment of $25 to OWWA, although the fee "was not compulsory." Many overseas workers refused to pay it. For instance, members of UNIFIL, or United Filipinos in Hong Kong, an affiliate of Migrante, have not paid any amount since 1997. 

__Now, the fee is mandatory under the latest OWWA resolution. And Borneo deplored the underhanded way it was imposed. "This move by the Estrada government to exact more from the hard-earned money of OFWs has not been made public by the OWWA up to this time," he said. 

Not widely disseminated

__By Borneo's succeeding statements, what he meant was that the OWWA resolution had not been widely disseminated, not even among Filipino officials.

__Borneo told PNI his group learned of the OWWA resolution only by "accident" after a Migrante member, himself an overseas worker, went to the OWWA office to have some documents processed and saw a copy of the resolution on the bulletin board.

__In a statement, UNIFIL said that when its members asked Philippine consulate officials in Hong Kong about the resolution during their monthly consultation on May 21, none of the officials present could say anything about it. Vice Consul Bernie Candolada said he was not even aware of it, UNIFIL reported.

__The UNIFIL statement quoted the vice consul as saying that OWWA representatives themselves should answer the question. 

Trying to avert protests?

__"Is the OWWA avoiding another militant protests by OFWs? Is that why it kept the resolution secret?" Borneo asked. 

__Migrante accused the government of wasting more than P100 million daily in waging war against the Moro people in Mindanao while bleeding overseas workers dry. "The Estrada administration is frantically searching the most profitable sections of the populace in and out of the country for funds to save the floundering economy," the Migrante statement said.

__It warned that "all attempts at [imposing] more collections, fees and fines on OFWs will be exposed, roundly criticized and crushed by the protest actions of migrant workers all over the world."

__Taken individually, a $25 fee may look small, or affordable, to dollar-earning folk. But taken from about eight million overseas workers, that can add up to a hefty sum to be placed at the disposal of an agency that is supposed to serve them free of charge, in the first place.