Deep cuts in DFA Budget dashes OFWs’ hopes for change

“Kayo ang boss ko!” These four words uttered by President Benigno Simeon Aquino Jr in his inaugural address at the Quirino Grandstand raised hope from the grave, awakening in each and every Filipino the stirrings of change and optimism. In his speech, P.Noy as he asked to be called, also gave instructions to the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Overseas Workers’ Welfare Administration to be more responsive to the needs of oversea Filipino workers.

Then came the hostage-taking crisis, ironically, also at the Quirino Grandstand, more than a month later. Eight Hong Kong tourists were shot dead by an enraged dismissed policeman, in full view of the world, after ten hours of bungled, unfocused and mismanaged police operations. Days after the incident, more than a hundred thousand OFWs were not spared the icy stares and epithets of enraged neighbors and employers in Hong Kong. But they rose as one to defuse the tension by gathering together in vigils to pray for the souls of those killed in Manila. When I visited Hong Kong last week, the OFWs told me how they would defend the administration including P.Noy from sarcastic and painful comments from their employers. “Why your president smiling?, an employer asked her Filipino maid. “That is just how he is, Ma’am,” the OFW repllied, while adding that the President’s smile did not mean that he was happy.

At the budget hearings of the House of Representatives yesterday, it was learned that Malacanang has chopped off the budget of the Department of Foreign Affairs for 2011 including its allocation for assistance to distressed Filipino nationals abroad. The DFA budget has been cut by more than 40 percent. In 2010, its budget was P19 billion. Next year, the DFA and its foreign posts would have to make do with P10.98 billion.

Also cut was the budget for the assistance to nationals, the fund which enables the DFA to repatriate undocumented workers, many of who are victims of human trafficking. From Php 200 million in 2010, the DFA would only have P109.3 million in 2011 for repatriation of victims, shipment of remains, medical assistance and psychological interventions, emergency relocations or transfers in case of natural catastrophes or armed hostilities, among other things.

Even the legal assistance fund used to hire lawyers to defend the rights of overseas workers in distress has gone down from the legally mandated Php 100 million (by virtue of the Migrant Workers’ Act of 1995) to a pitiful Php 27.3 million, an amount that will barely save lives given the growing number of Filipinos detained in various jails across the world.

This budget slash also comes at a time when a new law, Republic Act No. 10022, amending the Migrant Workers’ Act of 1995, needs to be explained, implemented, and carefully monitored. It is a complex law that, among others, directs the DFA through all foreign posts, to certify whether a labor-receiving country has existing labor laws to protect its workers including migrant workers, or is a signatory to international conventions and agreements or has an existing bilateral labor agreement with our country. On the basis of these certificates, the POEA Governing Board shall allow the deployment of Filworkers only to those countries favorably certified by the DFA.

More importantly, this budget downgrade places at risk the non-humanitarian assistance to be extended by the United States next year to the tune of Php 250-million. Under the 2010 Trafficking in Persons Report released by the US State Department, the Philippines is once again in the Tier 2 Watch List, meaning the government has not made significant efforts to curb human trafficking. Under the US law, a country that lands in the Tier 2 Watch List for two consecutive years (RP was in the watch list in 2009 as well), faces an automatic downgrade to Tier 3 which is where countries such as Myanmar belong. A Tier 3 listing in 2011 means that we are no longer entitled to such non-humanitarian assistance unless our President (Aquino) seeks a deferment or waiver from their President (Obama).

So in cutting down (or chopping off!) more than half of the DFA’s budget including that to be used for legal and other forms of assistance to Filipinos overseas, the consequences may be the following:

1. The task of repatriating trafficked victims and other distressed OFWs shall now fall on: 1) individual politicians from senators to mayors; 2) OWWA which are made up of contributions of workers who left the country legally; 3) the very individuals and agencies that conspired to victimize these workers thus diminishing the crime and reducing the entire matter into a bargaining situation.

I would have added the NGOs except one can really count on one’s fingers the number of NGOs that could afford to repatriate workers even from neighboring countries like Malaysia and Singapore.

No. 1 weakens institutional governance because it would lead to the politicizing of welfare assistance to OFWs in distress; it will also cause enormous lag time in providing onsite assistance – time that could mean the death or survival of an OFW.

2. RA 10022 or the amendments to the Migrant Workers’ Act states that the DFA can now use its legal assistance fund to file cases against abusive and exploitative employers and agencies outside the country. The Ople Center and other NGOs were happy to know this because the filing of such cases would greatly boost our anti-trafficking efforts. But with only Php 27-M for an entire year, how can the DFA even hope to pursue such cases? And what about the 3,000 Filipinos in jail, some of who have been detained more than their penalty calls for? If the current legal assistance fund is insufficient in looking after the legal rights of our OFWs, what more just a quarter of that amount? For an entire year!

3. Our foreign posts serve as the refuge of trafficked and maltreated workers. In Dubai alone, the welfare center is overflowing with at least 200 stranded workers at a single given time. A video taken of appalling conditions in Saudi Arabia for workers awaiting repatriation stresses the need for more funds, not less particularly for posts with a high concentration of Filipino workers. If we cannot afford change, then how can we see it? In this case, the OFW sector is not asking even for more funds — though it has every right to do so. But at the very least – a status quo. For now. Especially for a sector that brings in billions in dollar remittances that makes for a positive credit rating from international credit rating agencies. Why cut social services for OFWs?

Unless — the unjustified cuts are but another symptom of internal conflicts driven by magnified, puffed-up bureaucratic and political hurts. Read:factionalism. This may be a valid observation because of how deep the cuts are. Too deep to be superficial; too ruthless to be developmental. The cuts were made to hurt, and hurt bad – except that the wounds are being inflicted several times over on the bodies of the innocents.

We do want to hope again. The yearning is there, it is unmistakable, and while we are watchful, it is a watchfulness for both the bad, and most especially for the good. Honestly, I would prefer the inconvenience of a noisy wang-wang to the heart-wrenching wail of an OFW unable to come home despite numerous beatings from her employer. NFA – no funds available. So what else is new?

This latest move of chopping off millions meant to protect the rights and welfare of our OFWs is simply unjustifiable. When a child leaves home, a parent does what is humanly possible, despite the distance, to make sure that he or she is alright. The Assistance to Nationals Fund and the Legal Assistance Fund of the Department of Foreign Affairs is the budgetary equivalent of that.

With such drastic budgetary cuts, this administration might as well have cut lives short.

“Kayo ang boss ko!” Prove it to millions of OFWs and their families here at home, Mr. President. This is in your power to change. Do not cut the budget for the DFA’s assistance to nationals and legal assistance fund. Parang awa mo na.

Author: Susan Ople

Susan "Toots" Ople is the President of the Blas F. Ople Policy and Training Institute. She's an OFW and labor advocate based in the Philippines.

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  • Good points made and sharing this post.