Bernardo M. Villegas
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Department of Overseas Filipino Workers?

          In the recent trip to the Middle East of President Duterte, he announced that he has a plan to create a Department of Overseas Filipino Workers.  With more than 10 million OFWs earning close to $30 billion annually, accounting for some 12% of Philippine GDP, such a department that will exclusively focus on the welfare of OFWs could easily be justified.  As reported in The Inquirer (April 16, 2017), however, Secretary of Labor and Employment, Silvestre Bello III, has second thoughts.  According to him such a department could give wrong signals to Filipinos wanting to work abroad.  It may go against the Administration’s bid to provide decent jobs for OFWs right here in the Philippines to make sure they would return home for good after the completion of their contracts.  In the words of Secretary Bello, the creation of an OFW department “might institutionalize the relevance of our OFWs, which goes against the final aim of the government to get them back.”  After all, there are already two agencies mandated by law to promote the welfare of the OFWs, especially when they are actually working abroad, i.e. the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration and the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration.

         This dilemma poses a more fundamental question:  Are OFWs a temporary phenomenon borne of mass poverty and unemployment in the Philippines or  will there be Filipinos choosing to work abroad even if we are able to reduce poverty to zero in the next twenty or so years?  Will there still be millions of Filipinos who are living comfortably in the Philippines who will become OFWs not by necessity but by choice.  After studying this phenomenon for at least the last ten years, I have come to the conclusion that even if we reach First World status, there will always be millions of our fellow citizens who will choose to work abroad at least for some periods of their lives, even if eventually they will come back to their place of birth when they retire.

         This conviction of mine was reinforced by a recent article in the Opinion section of The New York Times International Edition (April 22-23, 2017) entitled “Go east, young American.”  The opening paragraph of the article written by Suketu Mehta, an American of Indian descent, is very illuminating:  “One of the fiercest debates in the nation these days centers on immigration to America, and whether it takes jobs away from people already here.  But maybe the solution is emigration from America Today, there are nine million American civilians living abroad—up from four million in 1999.  In the 21st century, America’s greatest export could just be…Americans.”   Although the U.S. may not be a model First World country as regards the distribution of wealth and income, it is still food for thought that Overseas American Workers (OAWs) constitute an important fraction of their population.  As we move towards the middle of the twenty first century, Filipinos will be in  increasing demand all over more than half of the world where demographic winter is intensifying and there seems to be no way of reversing it.  Add to this harsh demographic challenge the fact that Filipinos have certain alluring traits that make them among the most desired immigrants in the developed countries in Europe as well as in the Middle East and Northeast Asia as land-based workers and professionals.  Furthermore, Filipino seafarers will always be in great demand also because of their unique traits.  By definition, seafarers have to be overseas workers.  As Japanese and European marine officers and seafarers are decimated through rapid ageing, Filipinos are the most likely to replace them.  The number of these Filipino seafarers could easily reach half a million in the next ten to twenty years.

         I am of the opinion that development efforts in any country should have as primary objective the integral human development of every citizen.  The ultimate test of development is the possibility for each person in society to attain the fullest development of all his potentials and his self fulfilment.  The individual is prior to the State.  Therefore, nation building is only a secondary objective of development.  If some of its citizens will freely choose to fulfil themselves with their respective families in countries outside their origin of birth, this fundamental human right of freedom of abode should be respected.  It is highly probable, however, that a great majority of those who choose to seek opportunities abroad for some years of their working lives would still want to retain their Filipino citizenship, especially since our laws allow double citizenship.  As long as those who choose to work abroad while retaining  their Filipino citizenship contribute to the Philippine government revenues through paying their taxes, the Philippine State will continue to have some responsibility for their welfare.  That is why there may be a case of putting up a permanent Department of Overseas Filipino Workers that will continue look out for the welfare of Filipino citizens working abroad.

         Why a separate department?  My observation is that the Department of Labor and Employment has more than enough work in promoting the welfare of millions of workers employed domestically.  It may be necessary to elevate an agency like the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) to the status of a department in the Executive branch of the Philippine Government.   Upon reading the POEA’s 35th Anniversary supplement in the local newspapers last May 1, 2017, I am convinced that a Department of Overseas Filipino Workers can play a role to promote the welfare of Filipinos working abroad for at least the next twenty years, if not more.  There will always be a need for enhancing the protection and welfare of the OFWs; strengthening the engagement of OFWs in governance; leveraging on technology and instituting a customer-friendly e-Services delivery infrastructure; engaging all the stakeholders of this sector in policy and program development; and constantly facing various challenges to this sector posed by the changing environment.  For these reasons, I support the suggestion of President Duterte to create a separate Department of Overseas Filipino Workers who will always constitute a significant, if lessened, fraction of the Filipino population.  For comments, my email address is bernardo.vilegas@uap.asia.