THE Covid-19 pandemic and the passage of Republic Act (RA) 11641, or the Department of Migrant Workers (DMW) Act, have hastened the introduction of changes to the Philippines’s five-decade-old formula for deploying overseas Filipino workers (OFWs).
Less than a year after its full operation, DMW under the leadership of its first secretary, Susan “Toots” V. Ople, hit the ground running as it pushed through with the difficult task of updating and simplifying the regulations governing the recruitment and employment of OFWs.
As a former labor undersecretary and president of the Blas F. Ople Policy Center and Training Institute Inc. (Ople Center), Ople was aware of the existing gaps in managing OFWs through her regular dialogues with stakeholders. She knew that digitalization will play a significant role in addressing the issues that hound the sector, such as cutting down the processing cost and red tape.
IN June this year, DMW finally achieved its first major milestone with the launch of its Department Circular No. 1 promulgating the 2023 Department of Migrant Workers Rules and Regulations Governing the Recruitment and Employment of Land-based OFWs.
It was the latest iteration of deployment rules for OFWs since then-President Ferdinand E. Marcos Sr. issued Presidential Decree No. 442 in 1974, creating the Overseas Employment Development Board (OEDB) to manage the deployment of Filipino workers “in excess of domestic needs.”
The Philippines Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) took over the functions of OEDB in 1982, before the former was also replaced by the DMW last year.
The first-ever official DMW circular updated the 77-page deployment rules for land-based OFWs of the now-defunct POEA to just 44 by simplifying its language and policies, particularly sanctions for erring recruiters.
It got rid of the previous three-strike rule for the cancellation of the license of an erring recruitment agency. Now, recruiters face immediate cancellation of their license if they are found to have committed one of the 20 “cardinal sins.”
The said cardinal sins include requiring workers to pay illegal fees and costs, which should be chargeable to employers; and negligence in helping OFWs, which led to their death, abuse or psychological impairment.
It also provided incentives for compliant recruitment agencies, which included the extension of the validity of their license from four years to six years and reduced processing requirements.
DMW Assistant Secretary Francis Ron C. de Guzman told the BusinessMirror that separate updated rules for the recruitment and employment of sea-based OFWs will be issued.
“It is now undergoing [legal] scrubbing. We hope to release it by the end of the year,” De Guzman said.
The new circular is expected to increase the number of sanctioned erring recruitment agencies. “Because of the one-strike policy, which replaced the graduated [scheme], and how several suspension will be equal to cancellation, it is now easier to compute [when to sanction agencies],” De Guzman said.
Four months after the updated rules were implemented, the DMW official said they have received positive feedback from stakeholders, particularly about its incentives, as the rules were deemed convenient for their operations.
However, he noted that the recruitment industry is still adjusting to the stringent rules on sanctions.
“I think that is what Secretary Toots really wanted. If you are doing really, really well then okay, your operations can continue and if not, they are out…. So we told them it’s either you shape up or we ship you out by cancelling your license,” De Guzman said.
The agency will conduct a series of seminars and lectures this month to enhance the awareness of stakeholders and the public regarding the changes in the DMW rules.
President Raquel Espina-Bracero of the Philippine Association of Service Exporters Inc. (PASEI) stated that her group is currently conducting a comprehensive review of the provisions of the new DMW rules, which includes roundtable discussions with their members.
“We submitted position papers for the provisions that need amendment. DMW has been accommodating. We want to input provisions, which will be good for the OFWs, PRA [Philippine Recruitment Agencies], and the government,” Bracero said.
ANOTHER priority reform of DMW was the creation of its mobile app, which aims to automate the verification of OFW contracts as part of the move of the Marcos administration to digitalize government operations.
Through the DMW Mobile App, certain OFWs were provided the option to obtain their OFW Pass for free, replacing the overseas employment certificate (OEC). The OFW Pass can be acquired without the necessity for face-to-face application.
However, during the pilot rollout of the mobile app in 10 countries, it suffered several technical glitches, which temporarily prevented its use.
DMW officer-in-charge Hans J. Cacdac said the agency has already completed the initial testing of the DMW Mobile App and concluded that its use will still be limited to OFWs who will change employers.
He said they made the decision since a lot of OFWs still rely on face-to-face transactions to obtain their physical OECs for now.
For the next phase of the implementation of the mobile app, several features are expected to be included, such as a quick response (QR) code for automatic exemption from travel tax and terminal fee for an OFW.
DMW Assistant Secretary Venecio V. Legaspi said they also plan to include a system for monitoring OFWs, who will need reintegration services, in the mobile app. “This will be a big help in profiling OFWs.”
Under the monitoring system, returning OFWs will be asked if they will stay permanently in the country and will be offered local employment facilitation, reskilling or upskilling, and mentoring for entrepreneurship, among others, via a referral system.
ACCORDING to Kanlungan Center Foundation Inc. (KCFI) managing trustee Erwin R. Puhawan, the use of digital solutions for migration management is not new. In fact, he said, the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA), which is an attached agency of DMW, has the Electronic Case Registry and Response System (e-cares), where OFWs can register their complaints. The system also keeps track of the predeparture educational programs and welfare aid programs and services for OFWs.
Puhawan said several countries like Malaysia have also adopted such digital solutions through the Foreign Workers Centralized Management System managed by a private firm, Bestinet.
Even the International Labor Organization (ILO), he pointed out, recognized the potential of adopting such online labor management systems in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. In its 2018 report, ILO said such a system can provide migrants with a digital trail that they can use to demonstrate their status as well as reduce the time and costs associated with migration.
While it supports the introduction of the DMW Mobile App, KCFI said the government should be “transparent” in its implementation.
Puhawan emphasized that the government should guarantee the secure storage of the mobile app’s database, which holds the private information of OFWs, and ensure that it will not be utilized for commercial purposes.
He mentioned that the DMW should persist in offering alternatives for OFWs to access their services through offline methods, given that numerous Filipinos still lack access to mobile phones or internet services.
In response to these concerns, Cacdac stated that the DMW Mobile App is overseen by their in-house information technology department, working in collaboration with the Department of Information and Communication Technology, to guarantee the security of its database.
He also provided assurance that the rollout of the DMW Mobile App would occur in stages, ensuring that OFWs can smoothly transition to the new system with minimal disruption.
Toots’s enduring legacy
ASIDE from the new deployment rules and the mobile app, Ople, who died of cancer in August, had also tried to improve the quality of service in the agency in her brief stint as head of DMW. Ople’s daughter and BOPC President, Estelle Ople Osorio, recalled how her mother made sure that all DMW personnel would be accommodating to OFWs.
“They should not be grumpy and their mindset should be to serve OFWs and not the other way around,” Osorio said.
She added that her mother was “notorious” for being a stickler for law enforcement and that she does not accept gifts.
“I remembered when she first assumed office, there were many gifts [in her office]. But they later realized that my mother keeps returning their gifts. So when my mom passed away, [accepting] so many gifts was no longer part of the culture [in DMW],” Osorio said.
“She really wanted to clean the department. She really wanted it to focus on honest government service with a heart,” she added.
DMW officials and migration stakeholders all agree that it is still too early to assess the long-term impact of the reforms initiated by Ople in her brief term as DMW Secretary.
Ople passed away on August 22, 2023, due to health complications caused by breast cancer.
In her short stint in the agency, stakeholders noted that the reforms initiated by Toots were a good foundation for DMW and for improving the welfare of OFWs. She had been the perfect person to hold the reins of an agency whose time had come, nearly half a century since her father, then Labor Secretary Blas F. Ople, championed the cause of migrant workers. The torch has been passed.
Image credits: Nonie Reyes