By INA ALLECO R. SILVERIO
Next time overseas Filipino workers complain that they are not benefitting from the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA), they will know at least one reason why: their contributions might have been pocketed by corrupt officials.
The OFW group Migrante International has called attention to a recent report of the Commission on Audit that the OWWA’s overseas officers have failed to remit more than P21 million ($488,372) in collections to OWWA’s Land Bank- Manila dollar account during the last 10 years. This prompted the group to call for an “immediate independent investigation” of the OWWA and its personnel both here and in offices abroad.
Migrante’s chairman Garry Martinez said the audit should include investigations into the performance and financial transactions of Owwa officials including members of the Board of Trustees.
The COA said the multi-million remittance failure has put the Owwa funds at risk of misappropriation. In its 2010 report on the agency, the audit authority said the dollar and euro collections from various foreign posts amounting to P21.587 million ($488,372) has been un-remitted “for a long period of time.” These funds comprise fees collected under the Owwa’s voluntary membership program. The program funds are intended for the immediate use of OFWs and their families for emergency concerns and related needs.
According to reports from the CoA, the overseas-based officers of Owwa are required to remit their monthly collections to the Owwa Land Bank-Manila dollar account not later than the fifth day of the following month. When the audit agency went through the Owwa’s records, however, it discovered that a staggering P21.587($488,372) million had not been remitted for periods ranging from one to 10 years.
The CoA 2010 report on the Owwa said that several of the officers who had the responsibility to remit the collections remain in service: but four have absconded or are absent without leave. In the meantime, another 10 have already resigned or moved to another agency. The audit agency also discovered that collections from Switzerland from October 2007 to December 2010 were remitted by an employee of the Department of Labor and Employment.
“With the period of time that has lapsed and continued failure of the collection officers, particularly those with large amounts of accountability, to remit the money, the possibility of the funds having been misappropriated cannot be discounted,” the CoA said. “Some of the funds may already be lost. Moreover, recovering the money may become difficult and may even be doubtful for those who have absconded or have been separated from the service.”
Migrante International’s Martinez said the un-remitted P21 million may just be the tip of the iceberg.
“This appears to have been going on for a long time because no check-and-balance of OWWA funds is in place. We also believe that overseas officers cannot have pulled this off over a span of 10 years without the complicity and tolerance of people who are higher up the food chain,” Martinez said. He demanded that the COA should immediately release the names and embassies of those involved.
The labor leader said Migrante has been calling for an investigation of Owwa for the longest time, prompting congressional inquiries. The group and allied organizations have also filed several graft and plunder cases before the Ombudsman and Department of Justice against Owwa officials.
Martinez cited former Armed Forces of the Philippines chief of staff Roy Cimatu’s failed rescue mission during the Lebanon crisis on 2006 when the Owwa released P150 million ($3.48 million) for the repatriation of OFWs. Out of more than 6,000 OFWs, only 1,000 were repatriated , but the International Organization for Migration (IOM) was able to repatriate 4,000 OFWs.
“When asked where the OWWA funds went, Cimatu was mum about it,” Martinez said.
The incident prompted several Senate hearings and it was then discovered that P6.8 billion ($158 million) of Owwa funds were transferred to the Development Bank of the Philippines and Landbank of the Philippines (P3.4 billion or $79 million in each transaction) without any consultation with the OFW sector.
Former solicitor general Frank Chavez also filed a case at the DOJ against former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo for alleged misuse and re-channeling of Owwa funds to various projects that had nothing to do with OFWs, among them the supposed evacuation of Filipinos from Iraq, Kuwait and Afganistan in 2003. No actual evacuation of Filipinos took place, but the money disappeared.
Macapagal-Arroyo also reportedly transferred P100 Million ($2.32 million) from the Livelihood Development Program of the Owwa to the National Livelihood Support Fund under the Office of the President in September 2003. She and the other respondents are also accused of electoral fraud by “intending, facilitating and ordering the diversion of migrant workers’ trust funds from the Owwa to finance her campaign machinery starting 2003” with regard the release of PhilHealth cards bearing Arroyo’s name and picture as an election campaign tactic in the 2004 elections.
Martinez said some officers of the Owwa may have escaped accountability through the years on account of Section 5, provision (h), Article III of the Owwa Omnibus Policies that stipulates that all minutes, transcripts and tapes of the Owwa are confidential and not open to the public.
Go after OWWA officials
“If it is proven that Owwa funds were not used for the benefit of OFWs’, the whole Board of Trustees should be recalled. Erring and corrupt officials are being protected by this provision in the Owwa Omnibus Policies. No need for consultations with stakeholders, they could do anything with OFWs’ money without consulting them,” he said.
For its part, the CoA has already called on the Owwa to demand the immediate remittance of the full amount from the collecting officers concerned. It also said that the agency should withhold payment of any money to the collecting officers, and hold them accountable.