Milking-cow syndrome

Overseas Filipino workers, estimated at 9 million worldwide, are sadly, blissfully unaware of the latent political power embedded in its sheer size and collective purchasing power. Repeated failures to organize and support a party-list representative to Congress or even a staunch ally to the Senate have made it vulnerable to what I now call the “milking-cow syndrome.”

Recently, the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) issued Memorandum Circular No. 07 mandating that all land-based overseas Filipino workers shall pay an advance Pag-IBIG Fund contribution accruing to six months or 600 pesos. I disagree with this policy.

Big business and government financial institutions and corporations look at the OFW with his or her maleta, and tear-drenched contract, as a customer. With welfare as a fig leaf, some profit-oriented moneymen managed to penetrate the overseas employment program masquerading as do-gooders for a cost. For example, how many banks and insurance companies sponsor pre-departure orientation seminars or provide financial literacy programs to OFWs as a means to introduce their products and boost their sales?

I do understand big business. They must turn a profit to stay in the game; to employ workers; pay taxes; and compete with equally savvy rivals. On the other hand, I don’t understand how government can be so eager and cavalier in raising funds for GFIs by compelling OFWs to obtain memberships through legislation. I refer to the compulsory contributions being demanded of our modern-day heroes by such institutions as PhilHealth and Pag-Ibig Fund.

For example, some OFWs are complaining that their mandatory PhilHealth coverage does not have enough provisions for their dependents. The PhilHealth Law provides that an unmarried member can only include as dependent his or her parents aged 60 years and above. A number of OFWs are young and in the prime of their life, which is precisely why they are tasked with the ultimate sacrifice of leaving home to earn dollars abroad. Why can’t these OFW members, given the peculiarity of their situation, be allowed to name a dependent or dependents of choice? They certainly don’t have any other choice but to pay the required P900 mandatory contribution to PhilHealth before they leave.

To my knowledge, not once were reputable OFW groups invited to a public hearing of the Senate and House on the 2009 Pag-Ibig Law. No hearing was conducted outside of the Philippines. No survey was taken to ensure that compulsory contributions to the Pag-Ibig Fund enjoyed overwhelming support from would-be members outside the country. Yet, in a matter of days, P600 will be exacted from each departing OFW to pay six months advance for a membership that many of them really don’t understand.

“Oh but we have such great, wonderful, stupendous programs!” Undoubtedly so! But why compel Filipinos already forced to leave by the inequities in our own economy to pay government institutions that have tens of millions to spend in marketing its products and services? The truth is that our OFWs have become convenient milking cows for these institutions.

Once Memorandum Circular No. 07 takes effect, no overseas worker can leave the country without proof of membership in Pag-IBIG. Legitimate recruitment agencies are told by the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration to collect the fees and submit the membership forms of those to be deployed. Do you think that a worker about to leave for abroad would have the courage to say no to such mandatory collections?

I agree that mandatory savings is a direct result of this memo circular. At some point, these members can take out multi-purpose loans. What I don’t agree with is the arbitrary manner by which the Pag-IBIG Fund and POEA imposed a mandatory 6-months contribution from every land-based OFW. Pay up or don’t leave – this memorandum seems to say. Can’t an OFW just start paying once he receives his or her monthly salary abroad? A friend in the Pag-IBIG Board explained that this would make paying up more convenient to a prospective OFW member. Doesn’t the burden to collect membership dues fall upon the administrators of the Fund? Convenience on their part should not supplant the OFW’s right to free will. Already obligated to pay on a monthly basis, why exact a six months’ advance? It’s only six hundred pesos, some would mutter. Six hundred pesos is a lot to someone already indebted for pre-departure costs like passport fees and medical check-up payments.

All we ask for is transparency, consultations, and a more pragmatic approach to what is already an arbitrary imposition. Let us revisit all of these mandated contributions. Make every peso earned with blood, sweat, and tears profusely shed miles away matter on equal terms to both the OFW-member and the institution concerned.

To our legislators, I plead: please resist the milking cow syndrome. Let our OFWs exercise free will in selecting which social security, housing, and health care as well as pension programs to join. Empower them with information, but leave them to choose where their money should go.

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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