Prior to the pandemic, some 3,000 Filipinos leave the country daily to look for work overseas and from them, the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) collects a mandatory membership fee of P1,250 or $25 each.
That comes to an estimated P3.75 million a day or P112.5 million a month. In a year, as a result of the steady stream of “new heroes,” which also feeds the economy of the needed foreign currency, the OWWA collects a fat P1.35 billion even before overseas Filipino workers (OFW) earn their first dollar.
Now that a real emergency, for which the OWWA was created, has emerged through the pandemic, the agency said its funds will be gone by next year.
Past instances found OWWA not living up to its mandate, primarily in funding the repatriation of Filipinos who wanted to leave a kind of trouble in their host nations.
Under Republic Act (RA) 8042, or the Migrant Workers and Overseas Filipinos Act of 1995, the agency is mandated to administer, among others, an Emergency Repatriation Fund (ERF) to evacuate overseas workers in case of emergencies, such as war, epidemic, disaster or calamities, either natural or man-made.
The law provided that a seed amount of P100 million from the funds managed by OWWA goes to the ERF, after which Congress is supposed to allocate no less than P100 million for the ERF in the annual national budget.
The ERF is not the only fund under the care of OWWA. RA 8042 also provided for the Migrant Workers’ Loan Guarantee Fund, Legal Assistance Fund and Congressional Migrant Workers Scholarship Fund.
The Legal Assistance Fund is sourced yearly from the President’s contingency fund (P50 million), the Presidential Social Fund (P30 million) and the Welfare Fund for Overseas Workers (P20 million). The Welfare Fund is the precursor of the OWWA funds established under the Marcos-issued Letter of Instruction 537 and amended by Presidential Decree 1694 and 1809.
The scholarship fund receives P50 million from the equal shares of congressmen and senators and P150 million from the proceeds of lotto operations.
The OWWA funds, however, have been the subject of misuse, including the diversion from its budget in relation to President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s candidacy in the 2004 elections, in which the P530 million Medicare Fund for OFW was transferred to the Philippine Health Insurance Corp. (PhilHealth).;
The switch was made possible by a resolution signed by former Department of Labor and Employment Secretary Patricia Sto. Tomas, who was then also OWWA chairman, along with then OWWA administrator Virgilio Angelo.
Francisco Duque III, then PhilHealth president, had proposed his agency’s takeover of OWWA’s Medicare functions as early as November 2002. Duque, now the Health secretary, is known to be a close Arroyo ally and is a long-time friend of the First Family as a neighbor at La Vista in Quezon City.
In his memorandum to Arroyo, Duque said, “The proposed transfer will have a significant bearing on the 2004 elections.” Three months later in February 2003, Arroyo signed the proposed executive order.
Arroyo used the money to distribute PhilHealth cards valid for a year to people in the places she visited during the campaign. OWWA, by that time, had already been turning down health claims of hundreds of overseas workers and eventually stopped all medical reimbursements in 2004.
In an audit, the Commission on Audit also found that OWWA released a total of P33.65 million to the Provident Fund of its employees from October 2004 to August 2005, despite the board’s suspension of the benefits for lack of legal basis.
Senator Christopher Lawrence “Bong” Go had long sought the creation of one department to handle all matters involving OFW to primarily prevent accountability being lost in the bureaucracy maze.
OWWA then would be rightly abolished as its functions will be folded into the proposed agency.