OWWA fund depletion alarms govt, experts

By Cai U. Ordinario & Samuel P. Medenilla

IF the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) fund dries up, migrant workers’ benefits will be cut short starting next year, according to experts.

However, economists believe the government will not allow OWWA funds to run dry. Ateneo Center for Economic Research and Development (Acerd) Director Alvin P. Ang said the government can finance the fund through a supplemental budget.

This, as migrant advocates issued a warning that thousands of Covid-displaced OFWs seeking repatriation or government aid may be stuck in a bureaucratic limbo if the OWWA becomes bankrupt from coping with the fallout from the pandemic.

The advocates were alarmed by OWWA’s report last week to senators that its P18-billion trust fund could be completely exhausted if the mass repatriation of OFWs continues up to next year.

“It is sad and worrisome to see the steep and steady decline in OWWA funds that took more than 40 years to accumulate,” Blas F. Ople Policy Center Head Susan Ople told BusinessMirror in an SMS.

Repatriation impact

The former labor undersecretary said this could be problematic to OFWs, who would want to return home especially during the Covid-19 crisis.

“With 80,000 OFWs awaiting repatriation from Saudi Arabia alone, we clearly face a humanitarian crisis involving the health and safety of our migrant workers,” Ople said.

Her late father Blas F. Ople, the former senator and secretary of labor—and later, of foreign affairs—had conceived of the labor export policy in the early 70s when the Philippines was struggling with foreign exchange requirements while its skilled workers became in demand in other countries, especially the Middle East.

Such labor export has since shored up the Philippine economy, with OFWs remitting on average $30 billion the past few years. There had been repeated warnings in the past against relying too heavily on labor exports, but none of these contemplated the extent and suddenness by which Covid-19 upended the lives of some 350,000 OFWs (to date) in more than 50 countries.

The Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) earlier said that about a third of the over 300,000 OFWs whose employment was affected by Covid-19 are seeking to be repatriated this year.

Palace, senators support

Presidential Spokesman Harry Roque earlier assured the public that the Palace supports efforts to inject support in the OWWA trust fund.

“That [depletion of the OWWA fund] will not happen, the government will finance that [trust fund]. The government can include that in the budget or a supplement this year,” Ang said.

Last week, OWWA Administrator Hans Leo Cacdac said in a Senate Labor committee hearing that its remaining P18-billion trust fund could be exhausted by next year if the mass repatriation of overseas Filipino workers (OFW) continues.

In turn, senators said Congress would do its part to help beef up OWWA’s resources for dealing with the unprecedentedly high repatriation, as thousands more of OFWs are begging to be brought home.

Acerd’s Ang said the increase in spending for OFWs this year is expected given the current pandemic. He said the Philippines is not alone in this situation.

Increasing OWWA’s spending for OFW repatriation has been cited as a key factor for the possible depletion of the OWWA trust fund.

“If it [OWWA] runs out of resources, they will have to be bailed out by the GAA [General Approriations Act]. Of course, a depleted welfare fund will cut short OFWs benefits,” Institute for Migration and Development Issues (IMDI) Executive Director Jeremaiah M. Opiniano said.

Opiniano said a depleted OWWA fund will lead to programs being cut short, including those for reintegration. The OWWA handles the National Reintegration Center for OFWs.

Through this program, Opiniano said, OFWs can seek assistance for business ventures as well as access other programs that are extended to returning OFWs.

Without the OWWA fund, he said OFW returnees will have to seek assistance elsewhere such as through Government Financial Institutions (GFIs) like the Land Bank of the Philippines and the Development Bank of the Philippines.

The possible impact of injecting funds into the OWWA trust fund may add to the strain on the finances of the government. But, Ang said, the priority should be to save human lives first.

“These are all future problems that can be solved at a later time. We should spend now to save capacities and Human Resources,” Ang said.

Besides funding issues, the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) said other factors also hinder the government’s repatriation capabilities,  including the travel restrictions of other countries as well as lack of clearances or existing cases of some OFWs.

Financial woes

Recruitment expert Lito Soriano said while recruitment and manning agencies are mandated by government regulations to shoulder the repatriation of their deployed newly hired OFWs, many of them cannot do so because of their Covid-caused financial woes.

“We totally have no ability to send them home. Actually to survive for the next next three months is already a big challenge [for recruitment agencies] because we have no income since the employers, who availed of our services during the last six to eight months, have yet to pay us because of their financial difficulties,” said Soriano, who owns LBS Recruitment Solutions.

“So where will get funds to repatriate the OFWs?” he added.

When manning agencies, especially during emergencies, are unable to shoulder the return costs for OFWs, OWWA usually steps in. However, the sheer scale of the current pandemic-induced repatriation is proving too big for OWWA to handle.

Soriano said OWWA usually pays for the repatriation of rehired OFWs. He noted about 60 percent to 70 percent of the deployed  OFWs annually are rehires.

Additional funding

OWWA has requested a P5-billion additional funding from the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) to help with its ongoing repatriation and OFW aid expenses.

The proposal was supported by senators and Malacañang. However, as of Saturday, OWWA chief Cacdac and Labor  Secretary Silvestre H. Bello III—also OWWA Board of Trustees chairman—told BusinessMirror they are still waiting for DBM to act on the budget request.

Ople called for the immediate release of funding to OWWA in the Covid-19 crisis.

“Without the safety net of extra funds, we fear that many of our stranded OFWs will not be reached in time because our embassies and labor posts won’t have the resources to mobilize on the ground,” Ople stressed.

For his part, Soriano said the DBM should consider releasing an additional P20-billion additional funding for OWWA instead.

Last week, at the Labor committee hearing led by chairman Sen. Joel Villanueva, OWWA reported it already spent P1.1 billion to provide for the needs of 59,000 OFWs since March.

Besides the nearly 60,000 workers repatriated, an additional 62,000 more workers have expressed intention to come home.

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