"Actual action, not just empty promises, for OFWs"
Good news from the far-away deserts of Araby, where nearly a million Filipinos toil every day to feed their families—latterly, under the additional shadow of economic slowdown in their host country and the implacable presence of the coronavirus.
Effective March 14, 2021, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia will abolish the “Kafala” system. Foreign workers in Saudi Arabia will no longer be required to secure their employer’s consent should they decide to leave or change jobs. They will also be allowed to travel even without approval from their employers.
These reforms put an end to the frequent abuses of the old system, when any employer could confiscate a foreign worker’s passport at will and even bring a case against that worker if he or she should leave the employer without obtaining consent.
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) has lauded the new labor reforms as a “game-changer” for worker protection. The IOM congratulated Foreign Affairs Secretary Teddy Locsin Jr. and the Philippine diplomatic team that worked hard to lobby the Saudi government and almost all international forums, including the United Nations.
But the events that led to these reforms started even earlier, on the watch of Locsin’s predecessor at DFA, Alan P. Cayetano, who went on to become a congressman in 2019 and, until recently, Speaker of the House.
Cayetano wanted to make good on commitments made to our overseas workers by then-Davao City mayor Rodrigo Duterte during his campaign for the presidency. Candidate Duterte promised to address issues important to the OFW community—including the “tanim-bala” airport incidents that bedevilled OFWs during the last years in power of the unlamented President “Noynoy” Aquino III.
As a result of those promises, Duterte topped the 2016 presidential elections in every one of the overseas Filipino voter communities, who were captivated by his tough talk against drug pushers and criminals.
Four years later, as hundreds of thousands of OFWs make their way back home—not just for the holidays, but, all too often, because they have lost their jobs abroad or may be seeking better opportunities at home—the President continues to enjoy their outsized loyalty to him and his no-nonsense leadership.
Our overseas workers, toughened by decades of working abroad under the most difficult conditions, know enough to appreciate actual action and not just empty promises. It’s a tough standard that former Foreign Affairs Secretary Cayetano managed to meet on his watch at DFA.
Under his leadership, the DFA saw an increase in the Assistance to Nationals Fund from P400 million to P1 billion, and in the Legal Assistance Fund (LAF) from P100 million to P200 million. This allowed the DFA to help nearly 15,000 distressed OFWs and provide legal assistance to 685 migrant workers facing a variety of charges in their host countries.
Such reforms originated from a sea change in the Department’s philosophy: from focusing just on diplomacy, to becoming a lot more responsive to OFWs as the agency’s main clients.
Cayetano opened more consular offices in Ilocos Norte, Isabela, Laguna, Bulacan, Cavite, Rizal, Davao del Norte, Misamis Occidental and Tarlac. He instituted the Passport on Wheels program, where passport applications were accepted during special events all over the country in order to accommodate applicants unable to go to the consular offices or to the central office in Manila.
During Cayetano’s year and a half in office, the processing of passport applications greatly improved, from just 9,500 passports daily, all the way up to 20,000 passports a day. The introduction of the e-payment system addressed the issue of fake passport appointments, leading to an increase in the applicants’ show-up rate from 65 percent to 95 percent.
The courtesy lane was expanded, with senior citizens and persons with disability (PWDs) entitled to bring with them one companion relative. Minors were allowed to join their parents in the courtesy lane. This privilege was later extended to returning OFWs.
Lastly, the validity of the Philippine passport was extended to 10 years, making the document more useful and convenient to carry around.
After his stint at the DFA, as Speaker of the House, Cayetano carried over his advocacy for OFWs by filing a bill seeking to create a new Department of OFWs. The bill was passed by the House on third and final reading in March 2020, but has since stalled in the Senate.
With at least 10 million Filipinos working and living abroad, temporarily or permanently, this new Department would provide the focus they deserve to have from our government. It would then also free up the DFA to focus on diplomacy and foreign affairs, which continue to be just as important in the ever more complicated world our country has to navigate within.
Readers can write me at [email protected]