We are, indeed, living in interesting times. With tensions in the Middle East are escalating, our government aims to protect and extend services to our overseas foreign workers, to make ensure their safety and security.
To that end, the Department of Budget and Management has set aside P1.8 billion in government funds, for the repatriation of our countrymen who are in the Middle East. About P1.29 billion will be taken from the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), P100 million from the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA). The remaining P500 million will be taken from what the DBM terms as a free fund. With about 4000 OFWs in Iran itself, and 1.2 million in all the Middle East by the Department of Foreign Affairs’ estimates, it is important that we are ready to bring them all home if events require it.
But it isn’t only in times of crisis that we should be prepared to assist our OFWs. Under Republic Act 10801, or the OWWA Act of 2016, which we authored and sponsored, benefits and services such as loan and credit assistance, and healthcare are funded by the membership fee that OFWs, both land- and sea-based, pay every two years. The OWWA’s budget will also be strengthened by government funding, as it is now attached to the Department of Labor and Employment.
The OWWA’s services are many. For example, the OWWA has various disability benefits, ranging from P2,500 to P100,000, depending on the nature of the disability. Dependents and beneficiaries of an OFW member can receive educational assistance through the Education for Development Scholarship Program, and the OFW Dependents Scholarship Program. OFWs themselves can partake of educational training assistance in any TESDA-accredited school through the Skill-for-Employment Scholarship Program. Seafarers also have an upgrading program available to develop their skill sets, and the Seafarers Protection Act, which prohibits abusive monetary awarding schemes that involve disabled or deceased seafarers. There are also benefits and assistance for those whose loved ones have passed away while being OFWs.
And once the OFWs have finally come home to stay, they will have livelihood projects, skill-training programs, and other social counseling and reintegration programs available to them.
The repatriation plan that the government is undertaking at this time is under the OWWA’s set of responsibilities, as repatriation services include airport assistance, temporary sheltering – preferably at an OWWA Halfway House, and provisions for travel. In this case, the gravity of the situation has required the preparation of the budget as mentioned.
Even the now iconic balikbayan boxes sent home by OFWs to their loved ones have been given protection and a higher taxation ceiling, through the Customs Modernization and Tariff Act. Stricter processes for inspecting boxes without opening them have become law, and the overall value of items in boxes not exceeding P150,000 in value are exempt from taxation.
I believe that all these benefits and services are what we owe to our OFWs. They are our national heroes. Through their contribution to our economy, they help keep our country afloat.
And yet, the true measure of our love for our OFWs would seem to be this: that someday in the future, all of them can come home and find work here in our own country. This is why the Department of Trade and Industry is now establishing various comprehensive national industry strategies to upgrade, link together, and integrate various industry sectors and services. This is why we have Go Lokal! stores and Negosyo Centers that can assist micro to medium enterprises through development and market access assistance. This is why we have Shared Service Facilities that can provide businesses with the machinery, the technology, and the knowledge to produce more and better products. This is why we are working hard to establish Tatak Pinoy, to encourage excellence in our country, to attract businesses to come to us, and work with us.
How we are mobilizing now to protect and bring our family members home is a sign of our love and devotion. Building a future where we can minimize the need for them to find jobs elsewhere – to stay and find a job to support families here in our own country — should be our main concern.
Sen. Sonny Angara has been in public service for 15 years — nine years as Representative of the Lone District of Aurora, and six as senator. He has authored and sponsored more than 200 laws. He recently won another term in the Senate. (Email: email@example.com| Facebook, Twitter & Instagram: @sonnyangara)/WDJ