On the compulsory SSS membership for OFWs

Not all overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) know this but pretty soon they would have to become members of the Social Security System (SSS) as a result of the passage of Republic Act (RA) 11199, otherwise known as the “Social Security Act of 2018”.

For the sea-based or maritime sector, the manning agencies are defined in the law as “agents of their principals and are considered as employers of sea-based OFWs.” As employers, these manning agencies will be held criminally liable in case the contributions of seafarers are not remitted properly.

In contrast, all land-based OFWs not over 60 years of age shall be deemed as SSS members under the self-employed category. This means they would have to shoulder the contributions without any share coming from either their recruitment agency or, more important, their foreign employer.

How much would the minimum SSS contribution be for a newly hired OFW? Based on Monday’s consultation with OFW stakeholders on the Social Security Act of 2018 spearheaded by Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III, the projected minimum monthly contribution would be P960. This is the amount that a first-time OFW bound for abroad has to pay to be considered as compliant with the new SSS law.

How will the initial monthly SSS contribution be collected from our OFWs? The mode of collection would have to be specified in the implementing rules and guidelines that would be the subject of consultations next month. Will an OFW be prevented from leaving the country if and when he or she cannot pay the P960 contribution to the SSS? In short, will the overseas employment certificate (OEC) issued by the POEA be used as a collecting tool to ensure full compliance with the law? Again, this has to be determined and specified under the implementing rules and regulations.

The SSS administration will likely invoke Section 9 of RA 11199:

“(e) The DFA, the DOLE and the SSS shall ensure compulsory coverage of OFWs through bilateral social security and labor agreements and other measures for enforcement.”

Enforcing the law through the OEC requirement, to their mind, falls under “other measures for enforcement.” We hope that the POEA will not take on the role of a collecting agent for SSS. A worker’s inability to pay P960 to a government agency regardless of the benefits to be received should not be a barrier to overseas employment. The law itself recognizes the difficulty of getting foreign employers to remit their share in behalf of our OFWs, hence the “self-employed” tag.

Our OFWs are already groaning from the huge recruitment costs that include mandatory payments to Pag-IBIG and PhilHealth, as well as the standard medical and passport fees. Some workers also pay their OWWA contributions, though in principle, these should come from foreign employers.

Of course, there can be no sound argument against the need to save and invest for the rainy days through a pension fund. Still, the OFWs that will be leaving the country for the first time have no income yet to speak of. Why impose the burden of an initial mandatory contribution on an OFW who has yet to meet his or her employer for the very first time? And what if the OFW is subjected to maltreatment and abuse? When he or she comes home, the legal and moral obligation to meet the prescribed monthly contributions is a continuing one. Unlike OWWA that offers repatriation and livelihood assistance, the SSS offers benefits based on the amount of monthly contributions.

A new feature of the SSS Act of 2018 is on the grant of unemployment insurance or involuntary separation benefits. Section 14-B reads:

“-A member who is not over 60 years of age who has paid at least 36 months contributions,12 months of which should be in the 18-month period immediately preceding the involuntary unemployment or separation shall be paid benefits in the form of monthly cash payments equivalent to 50 percent of the average monthly salary credit for a maximum of two months…”

Technically, therefore, an overseas domestic worker who had to run away due to abuse suffered from her employer after a few months of work would not be eligible for unemployment insurance. It would be extremely rare for OFWs in vulnerable occupations to have paid at least 36 months contributions to the SSS prior to experiencing any form of abuse. The provision on unemployment insurance is more attuned to the domestic work force.

Common sense and experience dictate that the more we burden our outgoing workers with rules, financial obligations and red tape, the easier it is for illegal recruiters and human traffickers to tempt them with false promises. The State also has an obligation to promote legal and safe migration. While the new SSS law would result in higher revenues for the SSS, it should not be at the expense of our OFWs. If at all, the initial contributions must be more affordable and subject to remittance once they start earning a decent wage abroad through friendly payment schemes.

To make them pay their SSS membership before they can even leave makes the government a bully wanting more of the money that these workers don’t have. There has to be a humane and fair way of imposing mandatory contributions on our OFWs. Let’s look for it.

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Susan V. Ople heads the Blas F. Ople Policy Center and Training Institute, a nonprofit organization that deals with labor and migration issues. She also represents the OFW sector in the Inter-Agency Council Against Trafficking.

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