MANILA, Philippines—Malacanang cut more than the legal assistance fund of distressed overseas Filipino workers, it also slashed by almost half this year’s foreign affairs’ P200-million budget for overall assistance to OFWs down to P109.3 million next year, it was learned Thursday.
The Aquino administration’s plan to cut the OFWs’ legal assistance fund from this year’s P50 million to last year’s P27 million was met by criticisms from OFW organizations worldwide which point out that there are 108 OFWs facing death row, 7,000 Filipinos in jails abroad, and at least 10,000 stranded and seeking repatriation in the Middle East alone.
According to former labor undersecretary Susan Ople, the P109.3-million budget for OFWs is divided into P81.9 million for assistance to nationals, and P27.3 million legal assistance fund.
The Migrant Workers’ Act requires a P100-million revolving legal assistance fund for distressed workers under the Department of Foreign Affairs, whose budget for 2011 is down from P19 billion to P10.98 billion.
Ople, who heads the Blas F. Ople Policy Center, a non-government organization that is actively involved in migration issues, urged President Benigno Aquino III to “reconsider the deep cuts,” which she described as “untimely and unjustifiable.”
The increasing number of trafficked victims and a new law that mandates the DFA to certify whether labor-receiving countries are suitable places of destination for Filipino workers necessitate an increase in the DFA budget, not a cut, she said.
“With such drastic budgetary cuts, this administration might as well have cut lives short,” Ople said.
“This is in your power to change. Do not cut the budget for the DFA’s assistance to nationals and legal assistance fund. Please,” she added.
The new law, Republic Act No. 10022 amending the Migrant Workers’ Act of 1995, mandates the DFA to use its legal assistance fund to file charges against foreign employers and agencies abroad in behalf of aggrieved Filipino workers, the Ople Center said.
“The new law assigns additional duties to the DFA which warrants more funds for its implementation. The department must also step up its campaign against human trafficking because the Philippines is already in the Tier 2 Watch List and is at risk of falling to the Tier 3 ranking next year,” Ople pointed out.
“Our government is sending mixed signals to our OFWs and the international community. In his inaugural address, President Aquino instructed the DFA to be more responsive to the needs of OFWs and yet the budget department slashed its budget by more than 40 percent. How can it be more responsive with such meager funds?” she said
The daughter of the late foreign affairs secretary and Senate president Blas Ople noted that more than 3,000 Filipinos continue to languish in jail, while thousands more are awaiting repatriation after suffering abuse and maltreatment from the hands of their employers.
Migrante-Middle East, Migrante-Hong Kong, and Migrante-International said Aquino cannot sacrifice OFWs’ welfare for the sake of austerity.
Dolores Balladares, chairperson of the United Filipinos in Hong Kong (Unifil-Migrante-HK), sarcastically called this budget cut Aquino’s first “gift” to OFWs and suggested that he instead go after “plunderers, tax evaders, corrupt officials, and those using their office to live in luxury” or to stop the repayment of debts or to cut the military budget.
“More than halfway through PNoy’s first 100 days and all he can show now is a dark future for OFW concerns. It should be recalled that his first SONA did not include us,” she said.
John Leonard Monterona, Migrante-Middle East regional coordinator, called the budget cut “an injustice that could not be justified, therefore highly irregular and illegal and in violation of the Migrant Workers Act 0f 1995.”
This is the thanks the OFWs get for contributing through their billions of remittances some 10 percent of the country’s GDP.
Garry Martinez, Migrante-International chairman, appealed to Congress to oppose the proposed budget cut. “Malacanang should definitely review its priorities,” he said.
Martinez noted that the government collects some P32.8 billion in fees from OFWs every year: $25 membership fee with Overseas Workers Welfare Administration, Philippine Overseas Employment Administration’s processing fees, Medicare, and costs for the acquisition of 76 signatures from various offices, Pag-Ibig contributions, and the arbitrary increase in the new e-passport fees.
“All in all, these amount to at least P20,000 per OFW that passes through the POEA. For the 1.6 million OFWs that leave the country yearly, the government collects more or less P32.8 billion. This amount is on top of OFW remittances,” he said.
“Pero halos magmakaawa kaming mga OFW para sa suporta mula sa mga ahensyang ito (But how come we have to beg for support from the government),” Martinez said.
Veronica Uy, Phil. Daily Inquirer