The Department of Migrant Workers (DMW) is advocating for a bill that will institutionalize the inclusion of overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) in the Department of Foreign Affairs’ legal aid fund (LAF) (DFA).
This week, Migrant Workers Undersecretary Bernard Olalia emphasized the need to increase the LAF’s coverage at a House of Representatives meeting.
He said that despite the fact that OFWs can presently access the fund, this is due to a department directive from the DFA and is thus temporary.
The purpose of House Bills 1350 and 1673 is to extend the use of the LAF, as authorized under the Migrant Workers and Overseas Filipinos Act, in order to better safeguard OFWs. The LAF provides assistance to troubled overseas Filipinos who are unable to retain private counsel and reside in nations without a public defense system.
“While there is a DFA directive addressing certain sorts of aid, there is no permanent directive. If the secretary changes, the DO might be overturned, but if we modify the legislation, we will be able to institutionalize this support and further strengthen the safety of our OFWs,” Olalia said in Filipino during a hearing in the House on Wednesday, December 7.
Olalia noted that the DMW’s inability to legally assist OFWs discourages them from pursuing recourse. He also recognized that, due to this weakness, respectable employment companies are sometimes wrongly accused in distress situations.
“After enduring contractual breaches, physical abuse, sexual assault, and other types of harassment, many of our OFWs would prefer return home than seek and obtain justice from these erring and noncompliant employers and principals. The fact is that we lack the funds to sustain them,” Olalia stated in a mixture of English and Filipino.
“This is the reality that OFWs confront; they frequently return home feeling powerless, and in the vast majority of situations, cooperative recruiting firms are to blame…. The only way to combat this is to establish a fund that can assure our OFWs, while they are still in their destination countries, that they will be able to file the required and suitable legal remedies,” he said.
Mary Jane Veloso, who was imprisoned and sentenced to death in Indonesia in 2010, is a recipient of the LAF.
The DFA voiced its worries on the measures, with Undersecretary of State for Foreign Affairs Eduardo de Vega stating that their passage might interfere with the DMW’s job. He said that the DFA’s budget had already been approved and that, according to the present guidelines, DMW was responsible for the legal fees of OFWs.
De Vega stated, “We may usurp the powers of DMW if we utilize our LAF even for migrant workers in the Middle East, since we must renew the legal retainer contracts of the attorneys being recruited in our embassies in various locations in the Gulf in January.”
Recall that the DMW was established in December 2021 to unify the foreign affairs, labor, and social welfare departments’ OFW-related offices and responsibilities.
The Senate authorized a budget for the DMW in 2023 of over P17 billion. According to a Philippine News Agency report, P1.2 billion is earmarked for the DMW’s Agarang Kalinga at Saklolo para sa mga OFWs na Nangangailangan (AKSYON) Fund.
According to the statute establishing the DMW, the AKSYON Fund would give support to OFWs, including legal, medical, and financial assistance.