Drilon: OWWA has P13 B funds to repatriate OFWs

Published by rudy Date posted on March 22, 2011

MANILA, Philippines – Senate finance committee chairman Sen. Franklin Drilon yesterday revealed that the government, specifically the Overseas Workers and Welfare Administration (OWWA), has about P13 billion in contingency funds to repatriate overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) from Japan and troubled Middle Eastern and North African countries.

He said the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) also has a budget for assistance funds to help stranded OFWs in the war-torn countries such as Libya and Bahrain, although this was reduced to half during deliberations for the 2011 budget.

Drilon, however, lamented that the government’s resources are being prioritized for OFWs and their families and that the DFA-led operations would unlikely cover Filipinos who are permanent residents and who have married foreigners, as is the case of many in Japan.

“Many of our countrymen in Japan do not fall into that category anymore if they are married to Japanese citizens and have become residents there,” he said.

Drilon said the government’s foreign policy is based on protecting OFWs. Once forced evacuation is declared in a country, he said it is only at that instance when embassies are mandated to help in evacuation of their citizens.

“The government cannot shoulder everything… we have limitations. If the government declares forced evacuation, our policy to help them evacuate will come to fore. It can’t be everyone,” he said.

Drilon added that there is no need to pass a supplemental budget to augment the DFA and OWWA budgets because they have sufficient funds.

Supplemental budget sought

But already, militant members of the House of Representatives have proposed the appropriation of an additional P9 billion for the evacuation and repatriation of OFWs in those troubled countries.

Bill 4406 filed by lawmakers led by Bayan Muna Rep. Teddy Casiño said the measure “seeks to immediately supplement the government’s national budget in light of the unforeseen circumstances and developments that affect our OFWs in Asia, North Africa and the Middle East.”

“Our foreign policy will be a complete failure if government cannot allocate funds for the safety and bailout of Filipinos caught in dire situations abroad,” they said. “It is important to note that our OFWs in the Middle East and Africa accounted for 16 percent or $3 billion of total dollar remittances in 2010, while our compatriots in Japan sent home $883 million in the same year.”

They added that while the Aquino administration has P22 billion for cash transfers to poor households, it has minimal funds for assistance to overseas workers, who, ironically, are described by the government as “heroes.”

“Our overseas Filipinos have kept our economy afloat and our nation alive for the last five decades. It is high time we return the favor in their time of need,” they stressed.

Of the proposed P9-billion supplemental budget, P5.5 billion would be given to the DFA, P500 million to the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE), P500 million to the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), and P2.5 billion to the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG).

The additional DFA funds would be used primarily for the repatriation of Filipinos in Japan, Libya, Algeria, Tunisia, and Egypt, and for assistance to workers in Bahrain, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Syria, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, United Arab Emirates, Israel, Lebanon, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and other African and Middle Eastern countries experiencing political turmoil.

The P3.5 billion for DOLE, DTI and DILG would be used for assistance and reintegration programs for repatriated workers.

A joint Senate-House oversight committee would oversee the use of the additional funds.

Ducking the bullets for a handful of dollars

Meanwhile, the remaining OFWs in Libya are more worried on how they could send money to their families back home than their actual safety in the war-torn country.

Labor attaché Jaime Jimenez, of DOLE’s Middle East Task Force, said a number of OFWs in Libya have sought government’s help so they could remit money to their families here.

“The Filipino workers are very concerned that their families would not be receiving their regular remittance so they asked if the OWWA could give their families money and they would remit the money to the agency as soon as the banks become operational,” Jimenez said, even as he emphasized that only a hundred out of the estimated 2,000 OFWs based in Libya have expressed desire to return home immediately.

Labor Undersecretary Danilo Cruz, citing a report from the Philippine Overseas Labor Office (POLO), said 90 percent of Filipinos, many of them medical workers in Libya, said they wanted to stay put and continue working despite the Philippine government’s declaration of mandatory evacuation.

Cruz noted that around 295 Filipino workers are currently employed in the Tripoli Medical Center, but a total of 400 Filipinos are now staying in the hospital, including the nurses’ dependents.

He said the POLO estimated that there are about 1,300 Filipinos in Tripoli and another 700 in neighboring towns. There are also about a hundred Filipinos working in companies located in the Sahara Desert and their employers have assured them of sufficient food and other necessities.

Cruz said the Philippine government also plans to charter a vessel for the repatriation of the remaining Filipinos from Libya since it’s the only safe mode of transport.

But he admitted that the government is having difficulty searching for a vessel because the Greek and Malta vessel operators are now scared to get near any Libyan port because supporters of Libyan President Moammar Gadhafi might seize the ferry.

Labor attaché Bulyok Nilong, who just returned from Benghazi, said most OFWs, particularly medical workers, are reluctant to leave because their employers have doubled their salaries, provided hazard pay and other benefits.

“Many of those who have been working there for a long time are also hesitant to return home because they might lose their gratuity pay amounting to millions,” Nilong explained, adding that medical workers in Libya receive a monthly salary of $3,000.

Since the OFWs refused to abandon their jobs, he said the foreign employers assured the government that they would evacuate the Filipinos to safety when the need arises.

Bahrain assures Phl of OFWs’ safety

In a related development, Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario met with Bahrain’s Prime Minister Prince Shaikh Khalifa Bin Salman Al Khalifa on Saturday to discuss the situation of Filipinos there.

During the meeting with Prime Minister Khalifa and his royal family at his residence in Riffa, Del Rosario was assured of the safety of the Filipinos and that the Bahrain government will look after the Filipinos as if they were their own.

Khalifa stressed that the situation in Bahrain will become better and that his government will ensure stability and security. He also expressed appreciation for the Filipinos who continue to work in Bahrain despite the present situation.

He revealed that there are 40 Filipinos working in his household, and that even his grandchildren were raised by Filipinos and know how to speak Tagalog.

The Prime Minister earlier assured the Philippines and four other labor-sending countries of the safety of their nationals in the country in light of increased tensions.

Del Rosario, in return, informed Khalifa of President Aquino’s thrust to create more jobs by attracting foreign investments.

He cited the Philippine government’s efforts to create a good investment climate in the country and specifically invited Bahrain to consider the private-public partnership (PPP) initiative as an attractive investment vehicle.

He also mentioned that the President recently approved a limited open skies policy aimed at liberalizing the country’s aviation industry to benefit tourism, trade and investment.

Both agreed on the importance of enhancing the bilateral relations in all aspects to the furthest extent possible. –-Christina Mendez (The Philippine Star) with Jess Diaz, Mayen Jaymalin, Rudy Santos, Evelyn Macairan, Pia Lee-Brago

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