Citing the overcharging of membership fees by the POEA, the disproportionate allocation of funds between services and operating expenses, and the neglect of cases of distressed OFWs, Senate President Manny Villar, supported by migrant groups, called for a “stringent oversight” of OWWA funds and stiffer penalties for negligent and incompetent embassy and consular officials.
BY AUBREY SC MAKILAN
Vol. VII, No. 48, January 13-19, 2008
A migrant group supported a senator’s call for congressional oversight of the P10 billion ($246,305,418 at an exchange rate of $1=P40.60) Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) funds – which is being sourced from membership fees levied on overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) – to avoid misuse and prevent the repeat of the $25 membership fee overbilling.
Senate President Manny Villar has called for “stringent oversight” of the P10-billion OWWA funds to ensure that it is used properly and to avoid “lapses” such as the recent overbilling of the $25 fee collected from each departing worker.
The supposed overcharging of OFW membership fee of $25 was reportedly implemented by the Philippine Overseas Employment Agency (POEA). The overcharging emanated from the computation of the POEA, which based the fees to be collected on an exchange rate of P51 to $1. Senate President Manuel Villar Jr questioned this and said the fees should be based on the prevailing exchange rate of P41 to $1, thus, amounting to only P1, 025 instead of the current P1, 275 being collected. The Overseas Workers Welfare Administration said that it reduced the membership fee being collected from OFWs to P1, 044 since January 1, 2008. This, they said, is based on the preceding month’s average peso-dollar exchange rate.
“We have to make sure that the fund for overseas workers really works for the improvement of the conditions of our OFWs,” said Villar, noting that a system that could check its performance should be in place.
Villar’s proposal is being supported by the United Filipinos in Hong Kong (Unifil-HK). Unifil-HK chairperson Dolores Balladares said that their money in the OWWA should go through serious scrutiny and that the “plundering” of their money must stop.
The Senator said that the OWWA is classified as a government corporation with a budget outside congressional budget review.
“The President, for all her powers, has to go to Congress for money but OWWA with all membership contributions coming from OFWs is exempt (from going through Congressional budget allocations),” he said. “It can allocate and spend its own money without congressional authorization.”
The Senate President said that the OWWA funds, at the least, should pass congressional scrutiny like in the case of the National Power Corporation, also a government corporation. The NPC submits its budget to Congress even if the latter does not approve it, he said.
“This way we will have an idea and it becomes part of public record how much of every peso OWWA earns goes to direct services to OFWs and how much goes to overhead expenses, “he said.
But aside from the congressional review, migrant group Unifil-HK also called for the scrapping of the OWWA Omnibus Policies. The policy implemented in 2003, said migrant leader Balladares, “further constricted the funds allocated to the welfare of Filipino migrant workers while, at the same time, strengthening the stranglehold of the government to the funds.” She added that the OWWA Omnibus Policies implemented a mandatory per contract collection of membership fee, suspended programs such as the General Financial Assistance Program, and gave the president the opportunity to place more of her people inside the agency governing board.
“The OWWA Omnibus Policies was created for the sole reason of increasing the collection of OWWA and giving freer rein for GMA to dip her hands into the fund, she said, noting that the policy never included provisions to improve services to OFWs who had to go through numerous loops to get assistance from this office.
Balladares said that almost P1 billion ($24,630,541) goes to the OWWA Fund annually but argued that its fund allocation has remained minimal. Worse, she said, the allotment for OFW direct services is greatly overshadowed by its cost of operations.
OWWA started as a “welfare and training fund for overseas workers” created by former President Marcos in the late 1970s. It has grown into an agency with total audited assets of P9.95 billion ($245,073,891) as of end 2006. In 2005, it collected P1.258 billion ($30,985,221) from 994,191 about-to-be-deployed workers with the promise that for a $25-fee, a member will receive up to P100, 000 ($2,463) in disability benefits and P200, 000 ($4,926) in accidental death benefits.